Expecting the Unexpected
Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living—recently opened at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater on Broadway—is a gentle-natured, exquisitely calibrated, extraordinarily moving play about loneliness, missed connections, and vacillating intimacy. It also happens to be a play about disability, and about the complications, emotional and otherwise, that arise in caring for the disabled. Some of the theater’s outreach (“Take a photo . . . and tell us who has helped you”) as well as numerous reviews have cast this drama in a frame of advocacy. That’s unfortunate because the utilitarian spin distorts what’s distinct and exceptional about it. This piece lives in a thousand crucially messy character details that make the four humans in it vivid and unforgettable—a point that may sound obvious but, well, it took me by surprise.
That’s because I missed Cost of Living during its 2017 run at the City Center, after which it won the Pulitzer Prize, and was introduced to Majok’s writing with her next play, Sanctuary City, which unfortunately missed the mark for me when I saw it at the Lucille Lortel last fall. A purportedly sensitive and artfully fractured psychodrama about young undocumented immigrants, Sanctuary City felt more like clumsy political stumping than fluid or urgent storytelling.
What a delight, then, to go to Cost of Living and discover a play that doesn’t need to twist anyone’s arms because it has the power to break their hearts. With searing perception and subtle storytelling, it deserves its accolades.
Superbly acted all around and directed with unerring sensitivity by Jo Bonney, Cost of Living toggles back and forth between two stories that are entirely separate until they meet in a beautiful and hopeful late-action twist. In one story, Jess (Kara Young), a 20-something immigrant alone and adrift in the U.S. despite being a recent Princeton grad, is hired to care for John (Gregg Mozgala), a wealthy Princeton grad student with cerebral palsy. In the other, Eddie (David Zayas), an unemployed truck driver separated from his wife Ani (Katy Sullivan), steps in to care for her in Jersey City when her paid caretaker flakes out. Ani became a quadriplegic after a car accident that happened as their marriage was failing. In a prologue set in a bar, we learn from Eddie that Ani has died and he is crushingly lonely.
Both stories are written with deep compassion, but part of what makes them engrossing is the unexpectedness of their asymmetrical power relationships. The drama of these imbalances is intensified sharply and thrillingly by the fact that differently abled actors play John and Ani.
John and Jess are both young, attractive, cultivated and articulate, for instance, and we’re led to believe that he hires her despite her lack of experience partly because he feels a connection. Overt flirtation develops in a scene where she undresses him, then bathes him in full view of the audience, but in the aftermath he shows himself to be either bafflingly clueless or cruelly manipulative. The abled caretaker Jess, in other words, being Black, poor, and homeless (the latter she never reveals to him) is the needier one, and John’s privileged myopia only deepens her desolation.
Eddie and Ani, on the other hand, are working class and both financially insecure. When we first meet her we’ve already been charmed (in the prologue) by Eddie’s north-Jersey patois and his story about texting her even after death. She’s not what we might have expected, though. A legless woman in a slow-burn rage, she fumes defiance and resistance from a wheelchair that could be a rolling battlement. Slowly, haltingly, we recognize that this abuse is part of a private marital code, a sort of trial he probably often endured to offset his marital indiscretions and win access to her soft side. But how much will he endure now? And what softening is possible with armor as thick as hers?
There are many astonishing moments. Watch Katy Sullivan’s face when Ani suddenly fears that she’s gone too far, a silent expression that seems to contain all twenty-something years of their marriage. It’s one of the most remarkable acting transitions I can remember. And watch David Zayas’s face in their following scene together when, with Ani in the bathtub, he plays imaginary piano on her soapy arm, craftily avoiding and confronting the subject of sensuality all at once. He concentrates so intensely here that he makes her do the same, and the music starts sounding as real as if Glenn Gould were onstage.
This is a show not to be missed. A quiet, soul-stirring triumph.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
Cost of Living by Martyna Majok directed by Jo Bonney Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre