Manhattan Theatre Club first presented Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize winning play at City Center in 2017. The two fine handicapped actors, its director and scenic designer again contribute to an excellent production. Cost of Living definitely deserves a wider audience. Beautifully crafted, it manages to portray the human connection of two caregivers of deeply disabled people to their charges (and eventually each other) without the wringing of hands and, notably, much laughter. This is a feat.
We first meet Eddie (David Zayas), a sweet-natured, 54 year-old recovering alcoholic and currently unemployed long-haul trucker. Drinking seltzer at a Williamsburg, Brooklyn bar far from his New Jersey home, he waxes poetic about his former job and long distance connection with a wife no longer present. Eddie is half hoping to meet a woman accidentally met through a wrong phone number (or was it his wife?). Meanwhile, he genially talks to a stranger (the audience) for whom he buys drinks declaring attitude repentance as if the gesture was a “swear jar.”
Jess (Kara Young) interviews for an aide job with wheelchair user John who has cerebral palsy. (Greg Mozgala has the disease, though not as a severely as his character. He doesn’t need a wheelchair) She already has two night bar jobs, but seems desperate to secure this third source of income. John, a wealthy PhD candidate attending Princeton, is skeptical of her lack of experience, physical strength (he has to be lifted/moved) and reliability. Jess is Ivy educated (oddly, we never learn her major) but also Black. Apparently a decent job is hard to come by. There are signs John might be a privileged snob. Still, she’s hired.
Gregg Mozgala and Kara Young
Back in time, then separated Eddie visits wife Ani (Katy Sullivan) six months after a devastating accident that left her a quadriplegic, wheelchair-bound amputee. (In fact, the actress is a bilateral amputee who avails herself of prosthesis we see at curtain call.) He’s ostensibly come to collect left behind possessions and will be picked up by a current girlfriend Ani resents. In truth, Eddie’s concerned about and misses her. Understandably bitter, she snipes at him, but they also laugh. (Sullivan’s ease with punctuating swear words and insults seems completely organic.) Both execute blue collar speech with great skill.
Meanwhile, appearing at times coy, John presses Jess for a more personal relationship with efficient, defensive Jess. She’s reticent, but eventually complies, revealing something of herself. We see the way his aide shaves, bathes and dresses him. (Beautifully realized.) They grow closer. Jess’s slow unfolding is subtly restrained. Eddie goes back to see Ani with a caregiver proposition, based, he says, on financial distribution but clearly as much for continued love. Their intimacy (not sex) is touchingly rendered between her calling him a “prick.”
Neither pair evolves the way we think they might. Jess and Eddie, two lost souls, then unexpectedly meet. We learn her shocking reality and the rest of his story. Playwright Martyna Mjok’s is never predictable. Her protagonists are vivid, conversations realistic, plot thought provoking.
Katy Sullivan and David Zayas
As I wrote in my 2017 review, Sam Gold’s Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie inappropriately employed a (not very good) disabled actress as Laura, exploiting infirmity as novelty. Something similar occurred with the casting of wheelchair user Ali Stoker in The Public Theater’s Richard III, for which she was dramatically ill equipped. Both these actors are not only appropriate, but terrific. Joining the production David Zayas and Kara Young both inhabit their characters with empathy and accomplishment.
Movement consultant Thomas Schall sees to it that caregivers handle their charges with skill as well as deference.
Director Jo Bonney again delivers a masterful interpretation of Cost of Living. There isn’t an unmotivated gesture, pacing is pitch perfect, finesse omnipresent. A turntable effectively allows us to see the ambulatory caregivers sometimes pass in the night.
Scenic Design by Wilson Chin is minimal, but selectively effective with lowered walls, and only necessary furniture. Use of a revolving stage offers a caucus-race approach to relationships and time as well as making scene changes completely fluid.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: David Zayas and Katy Sullivan
The Manhattan Theater Club presents
Cost of Living by Martyna Majok
Directed by Jo Bonney
Through October 30, 2022
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street