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In an early scene in Cost of Living, a female caregiver new to her job refers to her cerebral palsy-afflicted employer as “differently abled.” The politically correct term draws a sharp condemnation from him.
“Don’t call it that,” he tells her. “It’s f—ing retarded.”
The exchange is typical of the bracing lack of sentimentality in this new play by Martyna Majok (Ironbound) receiving its New York City premiere at Manhattan Theater Club after an acclaimed run last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Featuring superb performances from its four-person ensemble, two of whom are physically challenged in real life, the drama provides a piercing look at the obstacles faced by disabled people and, more importantly, the human condition in general.
As the play opens, Eddie (Victor Williams), a former trucker who lost his job after getting a DUI, nurses a club soda in a bar and addresses an unseen stranger. In this monologue he describes his grief over the death of his wife, from whom he was separated. He’s shown up at the bar in the hope of meeting a stranger who has sent him mysterious text messages from his late wife’s cell phone number.
Via flashbacks, we’re then introduced to Jess (Jolly Abraham), who has just begun working for John (Gregg Mozgala), a well-off doctoral student who uses a wheelchair, and Ani (Katy Sullivan), Eddie’s former wife, who lost her lower legs in an automobile accident. John and Ani represent different ends of the emotional spectrum: He is smooth and self-confident, not above subtly manipulating his new employee; while she displays a bitterness over her condition that manifests itself in angry outbursts toward Eddie, who has returned to care for her.
The play is not without flaws. Apparently written in stages — the opening monologue was originally a standalone — it’s confusing in its structure and chronology, and one major plot element is a red herring. But the characters, dialogue and situations resonate with emotional truth about loneliness, financial desperation and the vulnerability of disabled people forced to rely on others to assist them with basic human needs. The last is beautifully illustrated in intimate scenes in which Jess bathes John while Eddie attends to Ani in the bathtub (offering assistance with more than just her hygiene needs). The latter scene also provides the play’s most harrowing moment, one that elicits gasps from the audience.
Under the pitch-perfect direction of Jo Bonney, Williams and Abraham deliver deeply affecting performances, conveying their characters’ emotional desperation most powerfully in a final scene in which Eddie and Jess meet under unusual circumstances. Mozgala, for whom his part was written, and Sullivan, a former Paralympic Games track-and-fielder, never once seem to be looking for sympathy. Their incisive turns will have you rethinking your next encounter with anyone similarly challenged.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Jolly Abraham, Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan, Victor Williams
Playwright: Martyna Majok
Director: Jo Bonney
Set designer: Wilson Chin
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Music & sound designer: Robert Kaplowitz
Presented by Manhattan Theater Club
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