Wednesday, June 7, 2017

20 (2017-2018): Review: COST OF LIVING (seen June 3, 2017)

“People Who Need People”

Cost of Living, Martyna Majok’s often touching and funny new dramedy, which premiered last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is about the mutual needs of people with disabilities and their caretakers. Now being presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club, it holds its audience firmly through much of its intermissionless hour and 40 minutes; eventually, though, its well-meaning intentions run into obstacles that seriously handicap the goodwill it’s so carefully generated.
Under the intelligent, sensitive direction of Jo Bonney, we watch, like voyeurs, as two able-bodied characters lovingly minister to two disabled ones, played (as is becoming increasingly common) by actors with real disabilities. Perhaps we even wonder how we ourselves would function in the same situations. But for all the naturalness of the actors, both able-bodied and otherwise, and the charm conveyed by the characters’ relationships and often funky dialogue, the play remains basically a series of situations in search of a plot.

It begins with a prologue set in a hip, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bar around Christmastime with an out-of-work, depressed, middle-aged trucker named Eddie Torres (Victor Williams) delivering a monologue to an invisible stranger about why he’s driven here from his home in Bayonne, NJ. Lonely for his recently deceased wife, Ani, he’s been sending texts to her old number; someone, like a ghost (a more mundane explanation will be forthcoming), has invited the lonely guy here to meet her.

This provides the exposition for the flashback tale of Eddie, Ani (Katy Sullivan), and their on-the-rocks marriage. But before we get there, we’re introduced to a parallel story concerning John (Gregg Mozgala), a good-looking, wealthy, Harvard doctoral student confined by cerebral palsy to a motorized wheelchair. John interviews and hires Jess (Jolly Abraham), an attractive, young, Latina bartender uncomfortable talking about her past. She has a Princeton degree but the play never clarifies why she’s so poor or why she so ignorantly refers to John as “differently abled.”
As sound designer/composer Robert Kaplowitz's mood-setting music plays during the shifts, Wilson Chin’s turntable set, elegantly lit by Jeff Croiter, smoothly brings us to and from John’s upscale apartment and Ani’s more mundane one. At John’s place, we watch the growing friendship between John and Jess, which seems headed in a romantic direction. 

At Ani’s we observe the attempts of Eddie, who’s been involved with another woman, to reconcile with Ani, his estranged wife of nearly 21 years. She’s a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic suffering from a spinal injury (the actress, a U.S. Paralympics medalist, was born with no legs beneath the knees); Eddie, possibly seeking to make up for a guilty conscience, insists he’d be a better caretaker than a hired nurse.
Cost of Living’s most memorable scenes involve remarkably intimate bathroom scenes, with Jess attending to John’s shaving and showering needs, and Eddie washing Ani as she reclines in a freestanding tub. Jess’s professional, businesslike movements, especially when she dresses and undresses John, all the while chatting as if she were engaged in any average household activity, like cooking a meal or washing dishes, contrast with the tender, potentially erotic attentions of Eddie, leaning over the tub. Ani’s response to his touch is a moving account of how she compensates for her lack of feeling by depending on her imagination.

But, as shockingly demonstrated when Eddie briefly leaves her alone, Ani’s disability is such that you wonder why she doesn’t have someone with her 24/7. John, though a bit more mobile, also seems to have such a need. Ani’s emergency button might bring help to her in an emergency but how does she eat or use the bathroom when no one else is around? With no other characters available, the play fails to address these questions.                              
Also problematic are the scenes related to a prospective date between Jess and John, for which she gets all dolled up (by costumer Jessica Pabst). The writing is contrived to surprise the audience by showing John unsympathetically; my wife suggested that it “Just shows that you can be handicapped and still be a jerk.” All well and good, but it seems an artificial device that makes John more oblivious than he's thus far seemed, simply for dramatic effect.
In the final scene, when Majok attempts to bring both story lines together, Jess likewise seems out of character, and the ending is disappointingly awkward. Dramatic surprises are always welcome but they shouldn't seem forced or arbitrary.

Majok’s vivid dialogue, thoroughly seeded with profanities, flows naturally from the first-rate ensemble. Victor Williams’s Eddie is a charming, voluble, everyday lug, even making some of Majok’s strained, working-class locutions, like “You ain’t die,” sound natural. Jolly Abraham captures Jess’s determination, as well as the protective force field she projects, making the scene of her big disappointment especially affecting. Gregg Mozgala is consistently believable as the egocentric John until the writing makes him less so.

Most memorable is the redheaded Sullivan, with her nasal, high-pitched, Jersey accent shooting a profane stream of verbal bullets at Eddie, expressing both her sadness and anger, her love and disdain while repeatedly calling him a prick. 

Majok's title seems, on the one hand, to refer to the financial costs of living with a disability, contrasting John's wealth with Ani's dependence on Eddie's insurance. It also suggests the economic hardships represented by Jess's itinerant bartending and Eddie's unemployment. Its metaphoric implications, however, about the emotional and psychological costs incurred in codependent relationships, are perhaps its biggest takeaway.


Manhattan Theatre Club/New York City Center Stage I
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through July 16