Will Pullen (Jason) and Khris Davis (Chris) in SWEAT. Photo: Joan Marcus.

By Stanford Friedman

Despite the numerous possibilities for dramatic tension and comic relief, there are, oddly, few great American plays that take place in a bar. Lynn Nottage’s heart-wrenching Sweat may well be the best one since O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1946. Back then, O’Neill established the local pub as a place where dreams come to die. Ms. Nottage is of similar mind, but her focus is on a specific dream, the one involving the land of opportunity and its inherent promises.

Urine, not perspiration, is the first bodily fluid under consideration in this chronicle of a group of factory workers on the cusp of ruin.  We are introduced to Jason (Will Pullen), a recently released convict. When he is presented with a cup for a urine test, his violent reaction is one of our first hints of a life that has taken a seriously wrong turn. Over the next two and a half hours we will witness the swerves that landed him here, as well as the broken paths of his family and friends. There will be sweat, in its various definitions. And also tears. And also blood.

It is 2008 when we first meet Jason, and his criminal associate Chris (Khris Davis). But most of the play takes place in 2000, back when the two were best buds, workers at a plant in Reading, PA, and regulars at the neighboring bar where everybody knows your name and nobody seriously expects life, or the limited beer menu, to ever change. Chris’ mother, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Johanna Day), are also regular patrons and co-workers at the plant, along with their often intoxicated pal Jessie (Alison Wright). Keeping everybody in line is the task of bar manager Stan (James Colby), assisted by his bar-back, Oscar (Carlo Albán).

Reading, PA is at the opposite end of the state from Pittsburgh, where August Wilson set his cycle of plays about the triumphs and tragedies of the lower middle-class. But Ms. Nottage is something of a next door neighbor. A large cast of characters, each feeling the pull of kin, the push of the economy and the shove of vice are recognizably Wilsonian, but Ms. Nottage does not write in that author’s heightened language. Her characters speak simply and demonstrably, allowing us to reason out their motivations. By the end of the first act we fully grasp the complex web of relationships that has drawn this clan together. Act Two blows the web apart. Larger forces that they barely understand – NAFTA, the looming stock market crash – play out on the bar’s small TV, and they feel the real-time consequences as their jobs become imperiled. As the hammer comes down, desperation turns into jealousy, shame, an anger that breeds racism and, ultimately, violence.

The cast, with the exception of Ms. Wright, a busy TV actress, has been together since the play’s run at the Public Theater back in November, and they are as tightly operating an ensemble as you are ever likely to see on Broadway. The subtle romance between Stan and Tracey, the growing resentment between the three women, and Chris and Jayson’s mounting frustrations are told as much through the way they listen to each other as through what they say. Pullen and Davis are especially impressive in showing how eight years and a prison term can transform a man; their post-prison voices changing timbre and their bodies somehow seeming to grow more muscular. Also of note is John Earl Jelks as Brucie, Chris’s on the skids father. Having lost his job a while back, Brucie is a ghostly harbinger of things to come for this sad group. Jelks, a veteran of two August Wilson Broadway productions, endows his character with a poetic sense of tragedy. Kate Whoriskey directs with a sure hand, with minor flourishes like having Stan slam a baseball bat on the bar to establish its heft, and major accomplishments like keeping the pacing of inevitable doom at a compelling slow bleed. This, along with John Lee Beatty’s perfectly wrought set featuring functioning beer taps, leave us thirsting for more.

Sweat – By Lynn Nottage; directed by Kate Whoriskey.

WITH: John Earl Jelks (Brucie), Johanna Day (Tracey), Carlo Albán (Oscar), James Colby (Stan), Khris Davis (Chris), Will Pullen (Jason), Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), Michelle Wilson (Cynthia) and Alison Wright (Jessie).

John Lee Beatty (scenic design), Jennifer Moeller (costume design), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting design), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (original music and sound design), Jeff Sugg (projection design), Donald Fried (production stage manager), Alexandra Hall (stage manager). Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., 212-239-6200, http://www.sweatbroadway.com. Runtime 2 hours 20 min.