By Elise Marenson
Cost of Living is perfection. It sent me over the moon. It reawakens my belief in the poetry of theater and highlights its purpose as the critical eye on our human existence. Seamless. Impossible to pick apart. The production is a jeweled symbiosis of playwright Martyna Majok’s unique script, Jo Bonney’s spot on direction, Wilson Chin’s tone setting design, and four actors so real that you forget you are watching a fictional stage play.
Set in Northern New Jersey, Cost of Living gives us two separate pairs of characters. Ms. Majok alternates scenes between their distinct stories, though one person in each pair is physically impaired.
The prologue opens on a bar, suggested only by an array of liquor bottles in the dark. Eddie (Victor Williams), an unemployed truck driver from a DUI, is heartbroken over the sudden death of his wife Ani (Katy Sullivan). In a seven-minute moving monologue, he shares all the little things that underscored their relationship. It was their texts while he was on the road – “thinkin of you, yer check came today” – that illustrate unconditional love with someone who “listens to your sh–“. Eddie is funny and whimsical, never morose, but he is so lonely and bereft that he calls Ani’s cellphone number that has already been assigned to someone else.
The scene changes to the other story and goes three months back in time. We are in John’s apartment. John (Gregg Mozgala) is wheelchair bound from cerebral palsy. He is a Princeton scholar, rich, and newly living on his own. Enter sassy Jess (Jolly Abraham) who is applying for the job as his caregiver. She is the child of an immigrant mother and speaks “Jersey”. Though her resume states that she is a Princeton grad, her professional experience covers working late night bars. Nevertheless, John hires her to perform the most intimate tasks of shaving and washing him butt naked. A non-sexual, personal relationship evolves, although there is plenty of innuendo.
During the same period, Eddie is caring for his estranged wife Ani who has lost her legs and become nearly quadriplegic from a terrible car accident. This is a three-month flashback from Eddie’s opening monologue. They too speak “Jersey”. Eddie begs Ani to let him take care of her. She puts up a good fight, resistant because she doesn’t want him back from guilt and pity. Through barbs and quips, we get their love and how well they know each other.
The characters are needy, but not neurotically so, and not without their dignity. They are distrustful, as near strangers or as exes with couple’s baggage, but they can’t live without a connection to another human being. On the face of it you might think that Cost of Living is a melancholy story, but Ms. Majok brilliantly infuses her characters and dialogue with biting humor.
WITH: Jolly Abraham (Jess), Gregg Mozgala (John), Katy Sullivan (Ani), Victor Williams (Eddie).
Sets by Wilson Chin; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Jeff Croiter; original music and sound design by Robert Kaplowitz; movement consultant, Thomas Schall; casting by Nancy Piccione, Kelly Gillespie and Telsey + Company; production stage manager, David H. Lurie; press representative, Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival. At City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues; For tickets, call CityTix® 212.581.1212 or http://www.nycitycenter.org/events/. Through July 16. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.