Somewhere in Bayonne, New Jersey, a middle-aged truck driver pines to care for his estranged wife, a woman he’s loved “the fuck outta” for “two decades and a year almost.” A car accident misaligned the woman’s spine, rendering her physically immobile and his guilt insatiable, even though he did not cause the crash. Meanwhile, about an hour south on I-95, a young woman vies for a caretaking position posted by a Princeton University Ph.D. candidate with cerebral palsy. The young woman already has two jobs bartending at night, but needs more money. Conveniently, he only needs assistance during the day and has a lot of money to give. It takes some agitating, but eventually both the truck driver and bartender get their gigs. The result is as theatrically evocative as it is soberingly human.
Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer winner “Cost of Living,” now making its Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, is a masterfully managed story of class, privilege, ability and shame. Eddie (David Zayas) is the aforementioned truck driver. He slouches on a bar stool, lamenting directly to the audience about being in that bar in the first place. Eddie’s opening monologue, performed by Zayas with the somber and soul of blues music, reveals that it’s atypical for him to be out in Williamsburg of all places this late on a frigid December night. Something unusual has happened: He just received a series of texts from the deceased love of his life, Ani (Katy Sullivan). The texts lure him to this bar, but the sender is nowhere to be found. He’s ghosted by a ghost.
The rest of the Eddie-Ani storyline plays out in flashbacks — six months after her accident, a couple before her death. Eddie begs for a trial run as Ani’s caretaker; Ani (an abrasive North Jersian) insults him a lot. It’s a marvel watching these two balance the familiarity of longtime lovers and the awkwardness of their new impediment (Ani is now a bilateral leg amputee). But the ex-couple only makes up one of two congruent storylines in “Cost of Living.” Throughout, the symbolically circular set (by Wilson Chin) rotates between Ani’s living space and a Princeton University apartment, home to another quadriplegic, the Ph.D. candidate John (Gregg Mozgala). Unlike Ani, whose ability to walk, lift (or more likely, punch) was ripped away in a flash, John’s immobility has been a life-long reality — he knows the exact level of care he requires. Jess (Kara Young), the young woman desperate to provide that care, is also an alum of the Ivy; that fact gets called into question by John often, considering the seediness of Jess’s other sources of employment. At first, Jess is evasive about her career, standoffish when John barrages her with questions about her personal life. Eventually, she is charmed by his wiseass ways, and opens up about the difficulties of immigrating to a new country without a financial or familial safety net.
Very few direct events happen in “Cost of Living,” yet action is never missed. Entire beats are dedicated to bathing. For 100 uninterrupted minutes, we stare at two human beings with visible disabilities, an act most of us are consciously or subconsciously ordered by society not to do. The irony of that perceived politeness? It’s impossible to look away from such stellar art. No element of the show stands over the next — the ultimate signifier that director Jo Bonney’s production is functioning at its best. Jessica Pabst’s costumes meld into their practicality. We are in present-day New Jersey and clothing does not have to tackle a giant feat, but I dare you to call dress pants and a cashmere sweater “simple,” after watching Jess lift John into his. Transitions between storylines are gorgeous, bathed by Jeff Croiter in shadow, silhouette and the beautiful things that happen under blue light.
For a play set in the muck of reality, there is an element of fantasy left unsolved: those posthumous texts from Ani’s phone. I certainly forgot about them until the play’s final moments when the storylines intersect: Eddie, on his way home from the Williamsburg bar, meets Jess. More than meets, actually; Eddie clocks that Jess is in a precarious situation, and invites her into his barren home. It’s present day again, Ani is dead, and her things are packed away in boxes. Understandably, Jess’s defenses rear, but Eddie’s offer of tea and a warm blanket is enticing. They’re in shaky territory now: Eddie desperate to care, Jess unsure of how to take, both drowning in need. Still, overt sentimentality never rears its head in Majok’s script. And that’s because “Cost of Living” is as much about the efficiency and wholeness of the spirit as it is the body. It’s four people, consciousness laid bare, varied by circumstance, evened by mess.
“Cost of Living” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.
Review photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Creative: Written by Martyna Majok; Original music by Mikaal Sulaiman; Directed by Jo Bonney; Scenic Design by Wilson Chin; Costume Design by Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design by Robert Kaplowitz.
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club (Lynne Meadow, Artistic Director; Barry Grove, Executive Producer).
Cast: Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan, Kara Young and David Zayas.