Broadway Review: COST OF LIVING (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on October 11, 2022

in Theater-New York


Every week in the opening sequence of the eighties television series Fame, dance instructor Lydia Grant would state without irony, “…fame costs and right here is where you start paying – in sweat.” Sweat might be the least of what a person may be called upon to pay in pursuit of widespread attention but her point is well taken. Achievement requires effort, dedication, focus, sacrifice and, quite often, pain. But these are uppercase Goals. What about the lowercase ones? The goals that are ephemeral, ongoing, non-quantifiable and possibly existential which speak to our experience of living in community with others? What is the cost of love, relationship, trust, connection, hope – what is the price of simply continuing on as a human being?  In her brilliant, funny and devastating new play Cost of Living, now on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, playwright Martyna Majok does not total these costs. However her deft, piercing, perceptive writing illustrates that there ARE costs incurred and they should be acknowledged even respected. Because paying those costs, painful though they may be, are what make us fully human.

David Zayas. Photo credit © Julieta Cervantes (2022).

And humanity itself is what Majok so elegantly displays onstage, as it occurs in North Jersey. An alcoholic truck driver in recovery named Eddie opens the performance with a direct address to the audience. He sits in a bar, drinking a seltzer, telling the story of his wife, Ani. Eddie loves his wife of twenty-one years very much. Ani, who recently passed away, always sent him texts when he was on the road in order to check on him and vice versa. But now she’s gone and Eddie discusses, with great humor masking his pain, how much his life has shifted. He’s in the bar because he continued texting his wife out of habit (and grief), even though she’s dead. Surprisingly, he began to receive responses from her cell. So he’s here to meet whomever now answers to his wife’s number.

Gregg Mozgala, Kara Young. Photo credit © Jeremy Daniel.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Jess answers an ad for a personal assistant to a Princeton professor named John. John has cerebral palsy so the job has an aspect of health care attached, including bathing him. Jess, a recent Princeton graduate herself, works many survival jobs with this being just one more. She is not trained in health care but John hires her anyway. Jess proves to be a quick study and is more than capable of handling John’s assisted showers as well as his intelligence and super-sharp wit.

Eddie’s story continues as we flashback to his wife in hospice, a victim of a severed spine due to a car accident. Though confined to a wheelchair with very limited mobility, Ani’s mind and mouth are completely unrestrained and she often calls Eddie out on his crap, including his self-serving perception of their relationship. From this set-up, playwright Majok takes a deeply affecting, intimate, and often humorous dive into the lives of these four, very distinct people.

Gregg Mozgala, Kara Young. Photo credit © Jeremy Daniel.

What’s most impressive about the circumstances of the show is just how unimpressive the circumstances actually are. The material of the play is the kind of life stuff that could happen to anyone, regardless of background. Catastrophic illness, homelessness, disappointment, heartbreak, death, separation, connection are some of the common human experiences being dramatized. Through these four characters, in some ways avatars for humanity itself, Majok has illuminated the vulnerability, strength, expanse, insensitivity and, most of all, resilience of the human heart. The show is a beautiful and multi-layered work that is welcome in these troubled times. The way Majok connects these four people is a bit contrived but, like in the play, life does sometimes treat us to some very convenient and unexpected solutions.

Katy Sullivan, David Zayas. Photo credit © Jeremy Daniel.

While Majok’s writing provides dense material to explore, it is the generous and stellar performances of the actors, along with sensitive and assured direction by Jo Bonney, which brings the production to vivid life. As Eddie, David Zayas is that familiar, blue-collar, rock of a guy who’s been through it but can still laugh about it. Charming and funny as he is, Zayas devastates when he reveals the depths of his isolation. His realization that the phone company has of course reassigned his late-wife’s cell number is a simple but poignant moment. As his wife Ani, Katy Sullivan is open and vulnerable in one instant and sarcastic and hard-edged the next. She runs the emotional gamut in her star-making performance, creating a truly memorable character. Kara Young is smart, guarded and tremendously endearing as Jess, a young woman who’s done everything “right” yet still doesn’t get the breaks. This Princeton grad, who lives in her car, is a stand-in for the working poor, and Ms. Young expertly plays all of the contradictions, wry observations, fear and hope that things will turn around. When her heart is broken, so are ours. Gregg Mozgala shines brightly as the acerbic but dependent John. The tension between the limits of his physicality, the expansiveness of his mind and the directness of his approach make him a complicated yet appealing character. No small feat as John is kind of a jerk.

Katy Sullivan, David Zayas. Photo credit © Jeremy Daniel.

Bonney’s intriguing staging on Wilson Chin’s rotating and sectional set gives the sense of the sometimes monotonous trudge forward of being alive. Jeff Croiter’s functional in some places yet lyrical in others lighting design creates mysterious silhouettes of the actors when they are exiting or entering stage, underscoring the continual dance between human isolation and connection that the play explores. There is also delicate, touching work done in the intimacy aspects of the bathing scenes, beautifully played by all four actors.

David Zayas, Katy Sullivan. Photo credit © Julieta Cervantes (2022).

Stuff happens. Life happens. It’s often not fair. Nor is it easily understood. But this excellent Manhattan Theater Club production posits that human beings have a great capacity for resilience, humor and hope in response to life’s challenges. For these characters keep going forward, no matter what. Which might be the cost, or maybe the joy, of living itself.

Kara Young. Photo credit © Jeremy Daniel.

photos © Jeremy Daniel (2022)

Cost of Living
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
ends on October 17, 2022 EXTENDED TO November 6, 2022
for tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit Telecharge

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