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Theatre in Review: Cost of Living/Kill Move Paradise

Top: Katy Sullivan, Victor Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Sidiki Fofana. Photo: Christine Jean Chambers.

Two new plays cast mordant glances at some of the issues currently eating away at our social fabric. Because two of the four characters in Cost of Living (now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center) are severely disabled, you might think that the title of Martyna Majok's play refers to the challenges of getting through the day when confined to a wheelchair. That is part of it, but Majok's vision is deeper and more complicated than this single issue.

Cost of Living is a drama constructed on parallel tracks that don't meet until the final scene. The first focuses on Jess, a young woman who is hired to care for John, a graduate student who, apparently, suffers from cerebral palsy. (The script never mentions John's condition, but Gregg Mozgala, who plays him, has CP.) The second centers on Eddie, a middle-aged truck driver whose estranged wife, Ani, lost both legs as the result of a car accident. (She is played by Katy Sullivan, a double amputee.)

John and Ani may require plenty of care, but don't think either one is needy. John, who has money and the assurance to go with it, requires someone to assist him mornings in shaving, showering, and dressing, but he isn't at all sure about Jess, who appears desperate for the gig, yet remains oddly evasive about herself. Eddie feels deeply responsible for Ani, even though he had nothing to do with the events that landed her in a wheelchair. Feeling shut out, he asks her to hire him as her full-time caregiver, a plan that Ani wants nothing to do with. In both situations, the fully able Jess and Eddie are intercessors, each hoping to find a place in the world by tending to others.

Majok follows both narrative lines with uneven results. The John-and-Jess scenario, originally seen in one-act form at Ensemble Studio Theatre under the title "John, Who's Here from Cambridge," places the characters in a cunningly constructed network of dependencies. To see Jess shaving and washing John is to be made vividly aware of his physical limitations. But their bantering relationship -- John has quite a way with deadpan remarks -- doesn't conceal an element of uneasiness between them. Jess, the daughter of a poor, immigrant, single mother, attended Princeton -- so how is it that she scrambles for bartending jobs? There's also an undertone of sexual tension that makes for plenty of awkward moments. The terms of their relationship remain teasingly unclear, even when a sudden movement on Jess' part leads to a shockingly spasmodic reaction from John. "My body overprotects itself," he says, adding, "It's like people hitting me from under my skin."

There's a touch of mystery in these scenes that is largely absent from those featuring Eddie and Ani, which consist largely of Eddie trying to a find a way back into his estranged spouse's life. Ani's bracing lack of self-pity is cause for some of Majok's most powerful writing. When Eddie lamely announces that he has been thinking of her, she pitilessly takes him apart, wondering exactly when, during which agonizing stage of her descent, she captured his interest. When Eddie asserts that music can be therapeutic, she replies in despair, "When music plays, the body goes lookin' for the things it's missing. The broken things. The shit that's disconnected. And it tries to bring everything back together. Like it used to be. Back in order. Order like music." In arguably the play's most harrowing scene, Ani, in the tub, slips under the water -- and we understand the extreme fragility of her existence. Still, there's a repetitive quality to these scenes -- Eddie and Ani state and restate their positions -- that is less than engaging.

Following a stunning reversal in which the John-Jess relationship, for all its friendly banter and hints of attraction, is revealed to be a commercial arrangement marked by a fundamental lack of trust, Majok finally brings the two plotlines together in a way that I won't reveal here, but which is both heartrending and a little contrived. (It makes blazingly clear how both Jess and Eddie suffer from material and emotional poverty.) Still, Cost of Living, like its predecessor, Ironbound (seen last year Off Broadway), show that the playwright is busy staking out her own literary territory -- northern New Jersey -- a terrain populated with working-class characters who struggle to get by, living one paycheck away from disaster. It's a powerful vision, highly relevant to these times, and it tends to linger after some of the play's oddities and unanswered questions -- Who takes care of John later in the day? Who cares for Ani when Eddie isn't there, which is most of time? What went wrong between Eddie and Ani? -- have faded away.

Jo Bonney's sensitive direction helps to smooth over the nagging inconsistencies while obtaining four remarkable performances. Mozgala captures John's impish personality -- he's a natural flirt -- while also subtly disclosing the steely protectiveness at his core. Jolly Abraham nails the sweaty desperation that drives Jess, as well as the hint of resentment underlying everything she says and does. Victor Williams fills Eddie's scenes with a steady undertone of regret; there's a bewildered look in his eyes as he tries to fix things that are beyond repair. Sullivan's Ani scalds away the tiniest touch of sentimentality with her industrial-strength sarcasm -- the sight of her smoking in the bathtub speaks volumes about her independent attitude -- but we also see her deep sorrow and the terror of her helplessness.

For a play set across multiple locations, Wilson Chin's turntable set provides an elegant solution, with each location suggested by a few pieces of furniture. (The play's tricky time structure leads to moments of confusion, although it's not clear what the set designer might have done to address this.) Jeff Croiter's lighting and Jessica Pabst's costumes are, typically, smoothly professional contributions. Robert Kaplowitz's sound design combines his original music with the song "Location" by Khalid and a battery of effects, including a flushing toilet, ambient voices in a bar, and music from a radio.

Like Ironbound, Cost of Living isn't a fully satisfying work, but Majok remains very much a talent to watch. She brings to the theatre characters and situations we haven't seen before and has much to say about an American Dream that, increasingly, seems reserved for the very few. When she combines this vision with a stronger dramatic sense, she will almost surely deliver a knockout punch.

Iit closes at the end of the week, but James Ijames' Kill Move Paradise (at National Black Theatre) is a chilling, powerfully theatricalized investigation of a phenomenon that is a stain on American society: the murder of unarmed young black men. Into an existential waiting room -- stunningly realized by the set designer Maruti Evans with reflective metallic walls and floor -- are cast four black men. Gradually, we come to understand that they have been killed and are occupying a kind of limbo where they await what will happen to them next. We don't get many details about their lives, but the intent is clear, even without the appearance of Tiny, the youngest of the four, holding a toy gun, Tamir Rice-style.

What follows is kind of a cross between No Exit and Funnyhouse of a Negro in which each of the men explores the conditions that have brought him to this terrible place. They are aware of the audience, which is seated on both sides of the stage -- "They paid," one of them says, flatly -- and don't shirk from confrontation, brutally exploring the assumptions that, all too often, come with being a young black male, making him an object of loathing and suspicion. ("Do I scare you?" asks Isa, the first to appear on the scene, glaring at the paying patrons.) In another sequence, a roll call of the dead is read, making an indelible statement about this appalling waste, which has often earned little more than a mild expression of regret from the powers that be. Repeatedly, they are stopped cold, gasping for air and exclaiming, "I can't breathe," in the manner of the murdered Eric Garner. Especially harrowing are the moments when one or another of them tries to escape, running up the raked stage only to be thrown back, as if he had encountered an electric fence.

This bit of staging induces a state of panic in one of them, Grif, which, in Donnell E. Smith's rendering, is enough to shake the most apathetic member of the audience. But the entire cast -- in addition to Smith, Ryan Swain, Clinton Lowe, and Sidiki Fofana -- deliver fiercely controlled, precise-to-the-last-detail performances. (Saheem Ali, the director, recently staged the Public Theater Mobile Unit's delightful production of Twelfth Night; clearly he is a name to remember.) Alan C. Edwards' lighting of the hugely challenging set is first-class, combining various warm and cool white washes with infusions of color and galvanizing chases. Palmer Hefferan's sound design blends a variety of effects -- electrical charges, voiceovers, and gunshots, among others -- with total assurance. Ntokozo Kunene dresses the cast appropriately.

It's a pity that Kill Move Paradise, which has been acclaimed, is closing so soon; it has plenty to say about something that has gone terribly wrong in our society. I feel certain that theatre companies across the country will soon be taking it up. In any case, James Ijames is a remarkable talent. -- David Barbour


(21 June 2017)

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