In “Cost of Living,” an eye-opening play featuring a quartet of extraordinary performances, playwright Martyna Majok offers a tart retort to that sappy Barbra Streisand song about the luck of people who need people, and smashes more than one stereotype along the way. In an early scene, Jess (Jolly Abraham) has applied for a job as a caretaker for John (Gregg Mozgala ), a young man with cerebral palsy:
“I never worked with the…differently abled,” Jess says politely.
“Don’t call it that.” John replies. “It’s f…ing retarded.”
“So what do I… how do I…refer to you?” Jess stammers.
“Are you planning on talking about me?”
“Why not? I’m very interesting. “
John is interesting, actually – a handsome, wealthy graduate student in political science at Princeton University — but clearly a bit of a jerk. Jess is in desperate need of a job, the daughter of an impoverished immigrant. But she is also a recent graduate of Princeton herself.
“Cost of Living” engages us in the story between John and Jess, and a parallel one between Eddie and his estranged wife Ani, who recently became a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident. Ani (Katy Sullivan) doesn’t want Eddie (Victor Williams) to help, angry and resentful that (before the accident) he left her for another woman. He makes it his mission to convince her to let him care for her. Much of their banter is surprisingly hilarious, but always rooted in their characters. (It’s a further subtle strike against stereotyping that Williams is an African-American, and Sullivan white, yet absolutely nothing is made of their relationship being interracial.)
With these stories, Majok explores the startling similarities between emotional and physical dependence, and examines the needs of the caretaker as well as the cared for – making us see that the lines between the two are often blurred, the roles reversed.
But what’s most wonderful about the MTC production, superbly directed by Jo Bonney, are a series of unforgettable scenes between the couples that thrust us into an intimacy that is rare in the theater. Eddie (Victor Williams) is giving Ani a bath when he decides to serenade her with a piano concerto. There is no piano in the bathroom, and Eddie never learned to play anyway, much as he wanted to. But he takes her paralyzed arm from the water, drapes it on the bathtub’s edge and plays her like a piano, synchronized with the radio broadcast.
A parallel scene between Jess and John, more prosaic but more practically instructive, shows what it takes for Jess to give a shower to John.
These and other evocative scenes would not work as well as they do without the exceptional performances – Katy Sullivan as a foul-mouthed and sarcastic girl from Jersey, who somehow lets us know that in her own way she is touched; Victor Williams as a regular guy from Bayonne, a former trucker, who has messed up more than once, but wins us over because he seems genuinely to care.
It’s an added gift that the two disabled characters are portrayed by actors who are themselves disabled – Katy Sullivan a Paralympic track and field champion, and Gregg Mozgala, a well-known disability rights advocate and the founding artistic director of The Apothetae, a company whose goal is to create plays that make the disabled visible.
A final scene in “Cost of Living” attempts to merge the two parallel stories, or at least find a connection between the characters in the two plots; Majok is apparently not content with the strong thematic connections. The scene doesn’t quite work, in part because it’s not clear at first when it’s occurring in the timeline of their lives. (A few lines seem deliberately designed to throw us off course.) Other scenes in the play are told out of chronological order and add at least momentary confusion.
I prefer to think of “Cost of Living” as a work in progress. Majok wrote a one-act play about John and Jess that was presented in 2015 at Ensemble Studio Theater, before she expanded it to this full-length play. She was smart enough to realize it was worth doing more with the characters and the premise; perhaps that’s still true.
“Cost of Living” is a “work in progress” in another way. As Majok did for new immigrants in her terrific “Ironbound,” by creating a complicated, not always likeable but always believable female character, so in “Cost of Living” she progresses our empathy and understanding for people who don’t normally get to break out of their demographic group label to become such vivid and compelling individuals.
Cost of Living
MTC at City Center
Written by Martyna Majok; Directed by Jo Bonney
Set design by Wilson Chin, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Jeff Croiter,sound designer and composer Rob Kaplowitz
Cast: Jolly Abraham, Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.
Cost of Living is scheduled to run through July 16, 2017