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A CurtainUp Review
Cost of Living
By Elyse Sommer
The clues about what brought Eddie to that bar in gentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn are fleshed out during a series of flashback scenes.
These flashbacks move back and forth between two relationships that are different but similar since both are based on physical and financial need. The scenes involving Eddie are between him and his estranged wife Ani (Katy Sullivan) who's become a double amputee as a result of an accident. The ones between John (Gregg Mozgala), a financially independent but physically dependent PhD student and Jess (Jolly Abraham) his part-time care giver are less personal. They're brought together by money — John having it to buy her services, her taking on the difficult job because she's desperately poor.
Fate has not been kind to any of these people. While Eddie and Jess haven't been as obviously wounded by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as Ani and John, they too are lonely and psychologically scarred.
Watching a severely disabled person, especially one in a stage of life that should be at its richest and most productive, is hardly light entertainment. It's the reverse of my recently reviewed The Government Inspector. . That hilarious revival of an early 19th Century Russian satire underpins a non-stop laugh fest with a dark reminder that political chicanery is with us more than ever. The Cost of Living, on the other hand, is very delicately and minimally laced with humor, mostly by Williams' Eddie.
Per its title, however, Cost of Living is a gut-wrenching contemporary drama. Its difficult to deal with traumas are exacerbated within the framework of a world rife with divorce, unemployment, homelessness and the high cost of health care deepening the divide between those who have money and those who don't.
More importantly, Ms. Majok, who last year moved into high profile territory with Ironbound, has taken another step forward with the very worthy effort by theater professionals to create major performance opportunities for disabled actors. The Deaf West production of Spring Awakening not only expanded deaf actors roles but easily and naturally included a wheelchair bound actress in the cast. Sam Gold's well-intentioned Glass Menagerie with a severely disabled Laura was more problematic. It would only have worked if Tennesse Williams had been around to rewrite some of the dialogue. No such problem with Cost of Living. Ms. Majok's request in her script's notes for Ani and John to be realistically cast makes perfect sense.
The playwright couldn't have wished for a more gifted pair of actors to play these characters than Katy Sullivan, who was born without her lower legs, and Gregg Mozgala who has cerebral palsy and can't walk. Best of all, Sullivan and Mozgala get to play characters with interesting personalities whose stories are the beating heart of this play.
Actually Mozgala played John in an initial one-act version, John, Who's Here From Cambridge. After being presented as part of one of Ensemble Studio Theater's annual One-Act Marathon. That short piece grew into Cost of Living with the additional characters of Eddie and Ani layered into the story of John and caretaker Jess.
Eddie's long monologue and a scene between him and Jess now frame those alternating John/Jess and Eddie/Ani sequences in between. Since Ani like John needs assistance with her daily functons the situation of Eddie's insistent return into her life, and her angry rejection of his help create a full-bodied play about two very different yet parallel relationships.
If all this sounds like a potentially preachy and medical melodrama, it isn't. That's because Marok hasn't written stock characters. for us to pity. Still, while neither Ani or John is especially lovable, we come to understand their anger and hopelessness about being trapped in their disabled bodies. For Ani, that anger makes it hard to accept her former husband's help. The John and Jess setup not only involves the physical demands of the job she desperately needs but entails a fraught relationship between the sharp-tongued rich man and the bright young woman with her own issues.
Cost of Living's New York production is fortunate to have Sullivan and Mozgala back on board, along with director Jo Bonney and the design team of the Williamstown premiere. Though the original Eddie and Jess were not available, Victor Williams's Eddie is a terrifically Everyman and Jolly Abraham is a finely nuanced Jess. Ms. Bonney has helped all these talented actors to bring their characters into believable life. She keeps the back and forth shifts moving along with a strong assist from Wilson Chin's nicely differentiated design for Ani and John's apartments. Her other designers provide further visual support.
The parallel aspects of the two stories include a painful, tense and gutsy bathroom scene for each; one in which Jess assists John to undress and take his daily shower and another in Ani's apartment where Eddie's tending her in a bathtub takes a harrowing emotional turn viewers won't soon forget.
The non-linear story telling is easy enough to follow and manages to build up to some unanticipated surprises. And Majok has not compromised her play with a Hollywood ending. Too bad, that she did feel compelled to wind things up with an epilogue featuring Jess and Eddie. It ties up her otherwise memorable and authentic stage portrait of chronically imperfect lives a bit too neatly.
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Cost of Living by Martyna Majok
Directed by Jo Bonney.
Cast: Jolly Abraham (Jess), Gregg Mozgala (John), Katy Sullivan (Ani),Victor Williams (Eddie).
Costumes: Jessica Pabst
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Sound: Robert Kaplowitz
Movement consultant: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: David H. Lurie
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club in association with Williamstown Theater at New York City Center Stage I 131 West 55th Street
From 5/16/17; opening 6/07/17, closing 7/16/17.
Reviewed b Elyse Sommer at 6/01 press preview
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