Theater Review: SWEAT (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 7, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage places much of the action of Sweat, now at the Mark Taper Forum, in a working-class bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, where floor workers from a nearby factory meet every evening to celebrate their comradery and drown their considerable sorrows. Though set in 2000 and 2008, it unfolds as a portrait of voters on opposite sides in the 2016 elections. Representatives from both camps are honestly and respectfully explored, though it is no surprise that the violence at the center of the narrative is instigated by characters who will almost certainly become Trump supporters.

Racial grievances (real and imagined), economic unfairness, and the dying gasps of an American way of life are interwoven to provide the engine for the unfolding of a factory strike in 2000, an assault that will put two young men in prison, and the uniformly dire after-effects for all involved by the time the men are released in 2008.

Small observations, even trivia, richly reveal the characters’ inner lives. The most emotionally satisfying moments here are seeming throwaways: a hard-scrabble white woman harangues an American busboy of Columbian descent about the unfairness of reverse racism then gives him the cigarette he had asked for before she started yelling; characters refer to deeply hoped-for dreams (a promotion, going to college) as if they don’t matter to them; when a habitually drunk woman comes back from the bathroom with her dress tucked into her underwear, her friend fixes it for her without comment or judgment.

That Nottage is a brilliant writer is inarguable. Her By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is one of my favorite modern plays. Intimate Apparel is practically a classic by now. So, I am especially surprised, shocked even, that I am not altogether enthusiastic about Sweat, a play that has been greeted with almost universal acclaim. It feels too often like a sociological constructed laboratory experiment of even-keeled fairness. Each of the nine characters gets an origin monologue, each gets to reveal secret hopes and fears, and violence plays out with a kind of dull inevitability. Scenes that should be riveting are oddly perfunctory. The play tries not to preach while preaching to the choir.

The cast is uniformly excellent, physically embodying the time shifts with graceful skill. Grantham Coleman and Will Hochman are especially effective, vibrant and playful in their 2000 scenes; broken, slower, clumsier, and bigger in 2008. Emilio Sosa’s costumes deftly support the contrast. John Earl Jelks and Amy Pietz are called upon to make striking shifts in degrees of their characters’ substance abuse. They are marvels of underplaying, yet both make their big moments believable as well. Michael O’Keefe also beautifully handles a physical transformation.

Portia and Mary Mara play close friends who become adversaries when one is promoted over the other. Soon they are on opposite divides, both feeling betrayed by the other. Racism, resentment, and envy poison the relationship. In 2000 one seems like the “winner” and one the “loser.” By 2008 it is clear there are no winners. They are both terrific, though I would prefer less yelling. Intensity isn’t necessarily increased by turning up the volume.

The stage feels cavernous. Scenic designer Christopher Barreca keeps the bar mainly out of the way upstage, allowing for the empty space needed center and downstage to suggest locations for scenes that happen elsewhere. But Lisa Peterson’s staging sometimes maroons the characters on opposite sides of the stage, leaving them awkwardly disconnected. Perhaps that is the intention, but if so, it registers more as weird blocking than a reflection of the characters’ relationships.

I don’t know if something went wrong on opening night, but the climactic fight scene falls flat. Instead of chaos heading toward tragedy, fight director Steve Rankin’s blocking seems to offer plenty of opportunities for characters to intervene, and pivotal blows that are meant to be inadvertent seem easily avoidable.

This production is sturdy and grounded, but for me it doesn’t soar. Despite the considerable gifts of the actors, the characters are more archetypes than real people. It feels like a debate where we’re supposed to learn things and pick a side which is kind of boring, especially when there isn’t really a contest, certainly not for a Taper audience in Los Angeles, California. When the white woman feels betrayed do any of us agree?

Unions have had a rough go of it in the last few decades, and we are now facing a Supreme Court nominee who might further erode workers’ rights. We know that. Yet for the life of me, I can’t imagine anything will block the forces of globalization and mechanization that are destroying high paying blue-collar jobs. It’s like when Trump tells coalminers they will get their jobs back. No, they won’t. For better or worse, the world has moved on.

photos by Craig Schwartz (click on picture for larger image)

Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on October 7, 2018
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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