On the surface, Will Arbery’s latest play to reach New York, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, is a workplace drama like Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, and Dominique Morisseau’ Skeleton Crew. However, it very quickly becomes clear that it is a play about climate change, ecology and modern angst. Very different from Arbery’s Plano, Heroes of the Fourth Turning and Corsicana, this play from 2018 eventually becomes an Ionesco exercise in absurdism with appearance by city planner Jane Jacobs and a mystical figure called “The lady in the purple hat.” Director Danya Taymor’s production for The New Group takes these shifts in stride but may leave the audience behind.
Initially set in the breakroom of the Evanston Salt Dome, salt truckers and friends Peter, a native, of Evanston and Basil, a Greek immigrant, complain about their working conditions and the continued cold at 30 degrees below. Their boss Jane Maiworm, Assistant Director of Public Works, worries about the effects of salt on the environment and whether the city should invest in heated permeable pavers which heat the roads but would put her team out of work. Her daughter Jane, Jr., rejects reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities which her mother has given her, but at 31 Jane, Jr. has not yet found herself. The play covers three successive Januarys in the years 2014, 2015 and 2016.
While the dialogue is made up of a great many non sequiturs, the play shifts to theater of the absurd in its final third. Three of the characters see the mysterious “lady in the purple hat” who may be a premonition of death and several of the characters contemplate suicide. One character disappears while another fights the polar vortex alone. The play becomes less and less realistic as it journeys towards its denouement.
Under Taymor’s direction the actors appear to know what they are doing. However, as there is so little coherent backstory, it is difficult to view the play as anything but a surrealist exercise to be taken as a cautionary tale. As a result, the characters’ behavior seems entirely unmotivated. As Jane Maiworm, Quincy Tyler Bernstine is sensitive in worrying about the environment and is compassionate about her adopted daughter Jane, Jr. While Jeb Kreager’s Peter is believable as a blue collar worker who worries about his truck breaking down as well as the cold, we do not totally understand why he is so angry with his wife and daughter, and considering suicide.
Ken Leung, unaccountably playing the immigrant Greek, is amusing as a man trying to write the perfect short story but also in his competitive interactions with his workmate Peter and his confused relations with sometime lover Jane Maiworm. We never do understand why he abandoned his wife and children in Thessaloniki. Rachel Sachnoff as Jane Maiworm’s adopted daughter is seen so rarely that her function is a complete mystery. Has Maiworm been a bad mother or does Jane, Jr. simply not have enough to do?
The scenic design by Matt Saunders segues from minimalist to sketchy and offers very less and less atmosphere. Isabella Byrd’s lighting is somewhat eerie in the early parts of the play but when the lights are brought up on the four settings, the illusion is destroyed. The completely realistic costumes by Sarafina Bush lead to unfulfilled expectations on the part of the audience.
Will Arbery’s Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (set in the city in which the author received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in 2015) is a perplexing experience as it shifts from realism to absurdism to surrealism. Its worthy topics of ecology and climate change notwithstanding, the play’s repetitiousness and unprepared-for events are frustrating as well as the missing backstories. While it begins interestingly enough, it very quickly turns tedious and inexplicable. A noble experiment, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing is either for the select few or needs a rewrite or second draft.
Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (through December 18, 2022)
The New Group
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thenewgroup.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission