Set in North New Jersey from September (the beginning of a new college term) to December, Majok’s riveting play directed in high gear by Jo Bonney alternates between two couples, each with a caretaker and a client, from two different socio-economic classes. John, a wealthy doctoral student just arrived at Princeton University, is hiring a new aide. Jess, a bartender, who has answered the ad has never done this work before but she is enthusiastic and eager – as she desperately needs the money. He is witty with a sense of humor about his condition while she is prickly, reticent and quick to anger. It takes a while for them to adapt to each other as Jess learns how to care for John who has cerebral palsy.
Ani and Eddie, a long-distance truck driver, have been separated and the divorce papers have been written but not yet filed. In the interim, she has been in a terrible car accident which has left her a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. Out of guilt or love, the out-of-work Eddie comes to visit. Whether from her accident or whether she has always been like that, Ani is a foul-mouthed embittered woman who wants to be independent – particularly from Eddie. When her aide does not show up one night, Eddie is listed as her next of kin and he is contacted to see what she needs. Her immediate reaction is to throw him out when he asks for the job on a weekly basis. However, Eddie is patience itself as he works his way into Ani’s good graces and begins to wake her up to feelings she thought were dead forever.
The play is enlightening for a physically abled audience as to the needs of the disabled both physically and emotionally. Both stories include a tender, poignant bathing scene as the caretakers learn how to adapt to their charges. However, there is more to Majok’s story. Both Jess and Eddie are dealing with their own problems. We discover that Jess is a first generation Princeton graduate down on her luck, all of her family having returned to her native country, never named. Eddie has been a long time alcoholic (which probably wrecked his marriage) and has lost his license and his job after a DUI charge. Ultimately, we discover that Jess and Eddie are coping less well than their charges and adversity is just around the corner.
Acted on a revolving turntable in Wilson Chin’s minimal but suitable six settings, the riveting play is performed at a fever pitch, with the dialogue coming as fast as a professional tennis match, much of it very funny, but painful. Jessica Pabst’s costumes relay the progression of time which passes over the five months from autumn to winter. The one problem that keeps the play from being a knockout is an emotionally satisfying but unrealistic ending. However, the cast is so believable at playing the subtext that Cost of Living almost gets away with it.
Both Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan are physically disabled actors so that they bring a level of authenticity to the play rarely seen on our stages. As John, the personable Mozgala is wry and ironic, patiently educating Jess about his life and condition. Jolly Abraham as his aide Jess works well off of his low-key performance with her always ready to take everything as a slight attitude. That she comes to like him as more than just an employer is in the cards from the beginning.
Sullivan’s angry, vulgar Ani is a show in itself. Tart, testy and waspish, she spews invective even when she is being friendly, never missing an opportunity to belittle or criticize. Victor Williams’ Eddie is just the opposite: a compassionate gentle man who has learned the error of his ways and hopes to make reparations. Life may or may not give him the chance he wants. Under Bonney’s astute direction, much is implied as the four actors give impressively realistic performances from which you will not be able to look away. You will hardly think the members of this foursome are acting.
Although Martyna Majok’s plays have been performed around the country, Cost of Living appears to be her mainstream New York debut. Not only does she make difficult material theatrical, her ear for dialogue is impeccable. With intense and arresting performances by Jolly Abraham, Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams, Cost of Living is a window on a world that will be new to most theatergoers. It has a great deal to teach all of us.
Cost of Living (through July 16, 2017)
Manhattan Theatre Club in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival
New York City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.costoflivingplay.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission