What is not said, and the many silences that pepper its structure, are just as important in Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer-winning play, Cost of Living (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, to October 30), as what is said between its four characters: John (Gregg Mozgala), a graduate student with cerebral palsy, Jess (Kara Young, recently Tony-nominated for Clyde’s), a bartender who becomes his caregiver, Eddie (David Zayas), a nervy unemployed truck driver, and Ani (Katy Sullivan), his quadriplegic ex-wife.
In this excellent Manhattan Theatre Club production, Mozzgala and Sullivan (a U.S. athletic champion, as well as an actor) are reprising their roles on Broadway, having originated them at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016 and off-Broadway in 2017.
It is Eddie that begins the play sitting in front of us, twinkling lights and a shelf of illuminated bottles behind him, a gruff and blokey fish out of water in a Brooklyn hipster bar. “The shit that happens is not to be understood. That’s from the Bible. The shit that happens to you is Not To Be Understood,” he says. Something tragic has happened, he indicates, so what does he do now.
The play then jumps back in time to follow the separate tracks of two stories; while one later scene brings two of the characters together, the play is really two narratives running in reflective tandem. After their scene-enhancing brilliance of Sir Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, here too the stage design (by Wilson Chin) and lighting (Jeff Croiter) do vital and beautiful complementary work to a quartet of excellent performances and Jo Bonney’s nimble and subtle direction.
The title encapsulates the struggles of all four characters. John is funny, sharp, and arch. He is also immensely wealthy, so while he is a graduate student the signifiers of his sleek home, and lovely bathroom, indicate a wealthy person who has enough time to parry as many bon mots as you would wish for. Jess, who needs the job to make money and keep herself afloat, is a worthy rhetorical foil, and also very good at what she does. All kinds of boundaries get gleefully smashed in Cost of Living. When Jess uses the term “differently abled,” John tells her not to, calling it “fucking retarded.”
For all its spiky humor and even spikier quartet—ouch, you will say to yourself over and over again watching them—the play is as clear-sighted about the skills required when providing care as it is about the experience of receiving and needing care. Jess is poor, and John’s financial privilege he has over her is as evident as him being reliant on her to bathe him. The play ponders her and his varying needs, as it also seems to chart what may be a growing romantic connection between them.
The tone between Eddie and Ani is far more bluff; a kind of stinging and affectionate couple of exes straight out of New Jersey. Majok gives them the kind of delicious warring backchat only couples who know each other too well could use. Like John, Ani is not only nobody’s victim, but as full of sterling qualities and frustrating faults as anyone else.
Majok’s writing is refreshing in that it does not deify or diminish the disabled. It does not make its two lead disabled characters into victims or saints. They are people, not symbols, not pamphlets. Being disabled is a significant part of who they are, but not all they are—and we see what that means to them, and what they require and do not require day-to-day and beyond in order to live their lives. Sullivan captures the tough wit of Ani, her frustration, and her determination to return to work, to get the semblance of some kind of her old life back.
There are two key scenes set around bathing; one as we see Jess help give John a shower, and the other as Eddie chats to Ani as she bathes. Both are important, showing the amount of care and physical effort John and Jess take to ensure his physical safety, with trust, strength and gentleness at its heart. Eddie and Ani’s bathing scene shows the depth of their relationship beyond the well-worn tracks of familiar bickering. And then one of the most shocking things this critic has seen on stage in some time takes place.
“Tender” was the word that kept recurring to this critic watching Cost of Living; yes, in the traditional sense, there is tenderness on stage between the characters as they carefully negotiate each other’s physical and psychological boundaries, but tender also, as in vulnerable and to be watchful of shattering the person in front of you in a way you may be utterly unaware of.
Everything feels on an emotional knife edge with all four of the characters, as they also try to say and do the right thing around one another. This is made clear in a final scene, where fate and coincidence bring Jess and Eddie together—both by now devastated for very different reasons, with Jess’ financial vulnerability making her the most in need.
We know what they share in common, as much as what they register of that which separates them. But their needs are great—practical and emotional. The cost of living in this play lies in money, in connection, in creating and honoring trust, in caring for someone else, in committing.
How do you accept a stranger’s concern, share a slice of pizza (a witty moment has Jess wary it may be poisoned), show love, care, attention, share some kind words, some company, some compassion, or really look at and listen to the person in front of you? Read Majok’s quotes, sourced from Andre Dubus in the program, which echo the play—the simplest acts of humanity stand for more than kindness.
Yes, this play is radical in its characterization of disability and disabled people, in giving nuance, spirit, life, and agency to characters and actors often denied all of those. It shows why writing and directing material like this should not be radical, it should just be. Cost of Living is a beautiful and thrilling piece of theater about the various tendernesses of simply being human, as well as a bracing challenge to all kinds of cultural forms and genres to follow its example.