By: Isa Goldberg
Martyna Majok’s new play, Cost of Living, at The Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center Stage, explores visibly uncomfortable territory. A play about disabilities, cast with people who have disabilities, Living stands out among a few like-minded productions, prominent in recent years. Among them, Sam Gold’s revival of The Glass Menagerie last season, featured Madison Ferris, a woman with muscular dystrophy, in the role of Laura. And the prior season’s revival of Spring Awakening, by the Deaf West Theatre, was incredibly innovative, with a cast of deaf actors playing roles that are sung by hearing actors. Off Broadway Samuel D. Hunter’s Good Beer and Neil LaBute’s Call Back, both from 2013, also demonstrate the heroic nature of characters who live beyond the limitations of their physical selves.
In exploring the vulnerable, underrepresented and ostracized, these playwrights work in the tradition of creating theater that addresses social issues of critical significance. Bringing physical disabilities to the fore, causes audiences to experience the raw humanity of these characters, and it makes it hard for us to ignore suffering. Jarring as it is to watch the characters in Majok’s new work struggle with the dailiness of their lives, her play makes life’s painful rigors transparent. Fortunately, she also imbues the theatrical experience with a sharply honed comic sensibility.
Here we meet John (Gregg Mozgala), a doctoral candidate in political science at Princeton, interviewing a woman to work as his aide. “Can you do this job?” the wealthy, demanding, privileged man in the motorized wheelchair asks Jess, the beautiful Jolly Abraham, again and again. As portrayed by Mozgala, not a muscle in John’s body seems to behave at his command, but his controlling nature clearly exceeds our expectations of a man with severe physical limitations. Mozgala’s John is entirely off-putting.
Still, his concern about her ability seems a little weird. What can a man in a wheelchair really need, beyond the basics – showering, dressing? But this is where human emotion takes a whacky twist, and the question of what he really needs brings into focus what Jess also needs. Love, human connection, respect – these are all up for grabs in a world where the “cost of living” is out of control. There seems to be, in contemporary society, a contempt for the poor, equaled only by our contempt for those who are medically difficult to treat. As we learn here, these issues are not necessarily the same.
Jolly Abraham is captivating in her role, striving as she does to succeed, to embrace, to improve her life. She is the character with whom we most empathize, not only because we identify with the rejection she faces, but also because it feels so unexpected. How she winds up in desperate poverty is no reflection of her intellect, nor of her efforts.
When she meets Eddie, a truck driver, who has been caring for his wife Ani (Katy Sullivan), a recent amputee from whom he had been separated, it brings a comic turn to a play that delves into such visually uncomfortable material. In a scene that remains seared in my memory, Eddie, portrayed by Victor Williams as a sweet and compassionate man, is giving Ani a bath. Walking off for just a moment, he returns to realize that without something to hold her up, she’s sunk, drowning in a bathtub of water. Best not to spoil the outcome here, but it is a tender, humanizing one, beautifully directed by Jo Bonney.
Cost of Living ***1/2
New York City Center – Stage 1
131 West 55th Street in NYC
Photos: Joan Marcus