Cost of Living is a vital new play from Polish-American playwright Martyna Majok. Following an acclaimed production at last summer’s Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF,) the play makes its New York debut in a Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) production in their home at New York City Center.
The opening tableau features a long, underlit bar with a full range of spirits which we soon discover, via a monologue by Eddie, is a hipster watering hole in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Eddie, played by Victor Williams, has gone to meet the ghost who has inherited his late wife’s phone number.
This monologue is a highlight of the play, a beacon of light, of tentative hope. We soon discover this is an upbeat scene in a somber play which finds its four characters loitering in the doorway of despair. Eddie’s monologue helps establish an enduring theme of the play, that of a character out of place in their surroundings. In this case, it is a middle-aged man of color in a bar populated by younger, presumably more affluent, white patrons.
Eddie is a host of sorts, somewhat reminiscent of the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, whose lines are revealed as one side of a conversation he’s having with a fellow bar patron. Pitching his speech to the audience offers the play a framing device which lures the audience in as it temporarily renders the fourth wall invisible.
The scenic design, by Wilson Chin, is a series of domestic settings which glide smoothly on a turntable. Each setting but one evokes an upscale scene of modern, glass-doored showers and angular, light wood lowboys. The austere palette is all muted tones of black, chrome, seagrass glass tiles and paper bag brown walls. The comfortable-looking costumes, by Jessica Pabst, largely hew to a muted palette of jeans and steely blues and purples, with the exception of a pair of decorative knit caps.
The bright lighting offers a bold contrast to the austere, spare scenic and costume design. Jeff Croiter’s lighting design possesses a flattening effect which helps underscore the characters’ not-so-quiet desperation. The lights help render the evening’s most memorable image; a bathtub scene which finds Katy Sullivan’s Ani, all alabaster skin and raven hair, resembling nothing so much as a subject in an Edward Hopper painting.
The incidental music, by Robert Kaplowitz, is mostly slick and almost loungey, offering yet another contrast to an evening already thick with strife. The music sounds like what might be piped into the bar at the top of the play, offering an effective counterpoint to the grittier substance of the text. Like the characters in Cost Of Living, the music yearns to, yet never quite succeeds in, connecting.
Playwright Martyna Majok is like a sculptor with her words, honing her poetic language to a spare core, chiselling away until something stark and riveting is revealed. Every scene, save the opening monologue, is a two-hander which offers the actors a feast of wounded emotions in conflict. The characters are frustrated in their attempts to communicate, yet successful in their efforts to conceal their longing.
Gregg Mozgala plays John, the other male character, a role he originated at WTF. He offers up an unexpected mixture of vulnerability and arrogance, a compelling counterpoint to Victor Williams’ Eddie. Jolly Abraham as Jess rounds out the cast and, like a female counterpoint to Eddie is a deeply sympathetic character.
Alas, it is Victor Williams as Eddie who discovers the lyricism in the spare, biting language which provides the evening with its most fully-realized performance. He likewise has the surest feel for the mordant humor peppered sparingly in the script. Williams locates the brightest glimmers of hope amidst the tragedy which all the characters share.
Veteran director Jo Bonney elicits strong performances from the cast of four potent actors whose distinct techniques tend to make them seem even more alienated than their characters would otherwise indicate. The sleek scenic components and slick music offer a sheen to this captivating production.
Majok’s genius is in locating the humor in the dark corners of the human soul. She’s reminiscent of late period O’ Neill but with a dash of levity which succeeds in highlighting the delicate despair at the heart of her epic poem of longing and miscommunication.
Cost of Living is playing at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street in New York City.
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