On the same night that I saw the exquisitely acted Broadway production of “Cost of Living” — Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play that tells the parallel stories of two disabled people and their caretakers — Lea Michele happened to make a promotional appearance for “Funny Girl” on The Tonight Show, singing “People who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world.”
It was an odd coincidence, because five years ago, when I saw “Cost of Living” Off-Broadway, I had explicitly viewed Majok’s play as a tart retort to that sappy song – an eye-opening take on what it really means to need people.
Manhattan Theater Club, which produced the play at City Center in 2017, has moved it largely intact to its Broadway house, the Samuel J. Friedman, for a short run. Only the two performers who portray the caretakers have been changed — David Zayas and Kara Young, who each give the latest in a long line of beguiling performances. The production is otherwise the same, mostly for the good: First-rate direction by Jo Bonney, effective and efficient design by the original design team, and, above all, extraordinary performances by Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan, as the two people in need of caretakers. If the lack of discernible alterations to the script feels like a missed opportunity, its strengths allow for a series of remarkable scenes that are surely unprecedented for Broadway.
Stereotypes and pious assumptions are smashed from the get-go. At her job interview with John her prospective boss (Gregg Mozgala ), a young man with cerebral palsy, Jess (Kara Young) says: “I never worked with the…differently abled.”
“Don’t call it that.” John shoots back. “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 he is also clearly a jerk – a quality that turns out to be fairly consistent, despite a concomitant charm, much to Jess’s ultimate dismay. People with disabilities are not all noble, nor vulnerable.
That the actor portraying John himself has cerebral palsy informs his performance in subtle and sundry ways. John’s condition is more severe than the actor portraying him, but, even so, the character is clearly not helpless; he has had a lifetime to figure out how to navigate through life given his body’s limitations.
This becomes most clear – riveting – in a scene where Jess helps him take a shower. Time has passed; Jess has settled into her job, and their mutual motions are so automatic that they are having a conversation that has nothing to do with the task at hand. (But it’s hard for us to pay attention to what they’re saying, because what they’re doing is not something we’re used to.)
A similarly unforgettable scene occurs between Eddie (David Zayas) and Ani (Katy Sullivan.)
Their relationship – their mix of needs – is more complicated. They’re married. But after twenty years, they separated, and he moved in with another woman, just weeks before Ani got into a car accident that left her a paraplegic. He has spent several scenes trying to convince her to let him take care of her – scenes that are surprisingly funny.
Finally, Ani has let Eddie back in enough to allow him to give her a bath. 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.
The scene is enhanced because these are not hippies: Ani is a foul-mouthed and sarcastic girl from Jersey, Eddie a trucker from Bayonne. It also helps, again, that the actress herself has a disability; Sullivan is a Paralympic track and field champion.
The scenes between Jess and John alternate with those between Eddie and Ani. Individually, these scenes are jewels. Together they form the beating heart of “Cost of Living” — absorbing, instructive, entertaining, affecting. But these are not the only scenes. The play has something of a frame around it, an effort to place the two parallel stories together into something approximating a plot. So, there is a prologue of a monologue by Eddie at a bar, and an epilogue of a scene between two of the characters not normally paired together, which diverges in tone from the smartly-checked sentiment of the central scenes. I’m no longer confused (as I was five years ago) by the timeline of the bookend scenes. (The prologue occurs in December; the central scenes are flashbacks to September, leading back up to December.) But I still do not see these bookend scenes as necessary.
Still, they do drive home some of the complexities explored in “Cost of Living” — that there are startling similarities between emotional and physical dependence; that the needs and the benefits and the drawbacks of caretaking can flow in both directions.
Cost of Living
MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater through October 30, 2022. Update: Extended through November 6, 2022
Running time: 110 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $74 – $298
Written by Martyna Majok
Directed by Jo Bonney
Wilson Chin (scenic design), Jessica Pabst (costume design), Jeff Croiter (lighting design), Rob Kaplowitz (sound design), Mikaal Sulaiman (original music), Thomas Schall (movement consultant)
Cast: Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan, Kara Young, David Zayas