Eddie (Victor Williams) is a sweet-natured, currently unemployed, long-haul trucker. A recovering alcoholic at loose ends, he sometimes goes to a bar for company and drinks seltzer. Ani (Katy Sullivan), his estranged wife, is a mouthy, New Jersey woman who uses swear words like common conjunctions. Having had a tragic car accident after their separation, she’s a double above-the-knee amputee. (The actress is, in fact, a bilateral amputee who avails herself of prostheses we see only during the curtain call.)
Jess (Jolly Abraham) works multiple bartending jobs, secretly sleeping in her car so that she might send as much money as possible back to her Spanish mother. Having graduated Princeton (we never learn about her degree), she’s fallen far from expectation. An attractive single woman in dangerous circumstances, Jess has defensively withdrawn from any possible intimacy. John (Gregg Mozgala) is a smart, rich Princeton graduate student with muscular dystrophy who hires Jess as his caregiver. (The actor has muscular dystrophy, but is not wheelchair bound.)
Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams
All four characters are handicapped by prejudicial assumptions and isolation. Eddie is black, Jess an immigrant, both John and now Ani, face an uneducated world view. None of them, however, are passive or, in the end, self-pitying. This is especially true of Ani who instinctively recognizes her fury has its place and that present incapacitation doesn’t mitigate her character, and John, whose perhaps overcompensating confidence and resources, don’t let infirmity keep him from a relatively normal life.
Three quarters of this tight, eloquent play is spent with Eddie and Ani – he goes back to become her caregiver, or Jess and John. Both relationships are rife with misinterpretation. Ani punishes her ex at first with anger and then humor. Why is he there? John brings Jess out of her shell only to wound her under surprising circumstances, exposing imperception that turns out cruel. Vicissitudes of trust are apparent. The last quarter of the play introduces Jess to Eddie, illuminating respective changes and like human need.
Gregg Mozgala and Jolly Abraham
Playwright Martyna Mojok writes with pith and originality, capturing the attitudes, emotions, and syntax of a range of characters in unexpected situations. (I also thought her 2016 Ironbound exceptional.) Conversations are strikingly real and insightful. A scene where Jess lifts John onto a shower chair and bathes him is mirrored by Eddie’s ministrations to Ani in a tub, yet the two parentheses couldn’t be more different. (Neither sensationalizes.) This piece deserves far wider exposure.
Acting is first class. Each player submerges him/herself with a naturalness we never question. Abraham and Williams touch their stage charges with the purpose and finesse of Jess and Eddie. Sullivan and Mozgala convincingly portray people with much less independence.
Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams
Director Jo Bonney keeps the piece fluid by letting us see exits and entrances both on foot and by motorized wheel chair simultaneous to revolving scene change. Pacing allows actors to listen and think compelling attention. Class accents are kept low key. Exchanges between physically able actors and those less so are handled with grace and honesty (Movement Consultant – Thomas Schall) as is what’s visible and discreetly hidden. A superb job.
Wilson Chin’s Scenic Design is stark and effective, employing only the necessary, but for evocative snow, allowing us to focus on people.
Jessica Pabst’s Costume Design is on target, describing rather than layering upon character.
In my opinion, Sam Gold’s production of The Glass Menagerie inappropriately employed a (not very good) disabled actress as Laura, exploiting her infirmity as novelty, damaging the play’s clear characterization. I’m delighted to say both these actors are not just apt but terrific.
Note: Mr. Mozgala founded the Apothetae, which advocates for diabled people in the theater and Sullivan is a Paralympic Track and Field Champion.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Gregg Mozgala & Jolly Abraham
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Cost of Living by Martyna Majok
Directed by Jo Bonney
City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th Street
Through July 16, 2017