Majok’s writing concerns itself with class, which lends a literal meaning to the moniker. At least three of the four characters could be counted among the working poor, scraping by on menial jobs that leave them toeing the poverty line.
With a verisimilitude that few playwrights today even approach, Majok presents a believable struggle onstage, showing the well-heeled audience at Manhattan Theatre Club what it looks like when you’re just a few moves away from losing everything.
But there is also a second, deeper significance to consider. The cost of living, in Majok’s view, is not just what we are paid – it is what we owe the people in our lives. Caregiving forms the center of the story, which ricochets back and forth between two sets of people who both depend on and resent each other.
Whether you are paid to perform care or you do it out of love – both scenarios explored over the course of a brisk 100 minutes – it can be an obligation, a chore and a blessing. Majok renders these simultaneous, contradictory feelings with humor and compassion.
I first saw Cost of Living in 2017, when Manhattan Theatre Club presented it at its Off-Broadway space in the bowels of City Center. Now situated at the Friedman Theatre, its resonance seems as expanded as its physical production.
Jo Bonney’s direction has lost none of its intimacy or immediacy, and the fine technical elements – Wilson Chin’s turntable set that rotates from upmarket to dilapidated apartments on a dime, Rob Kaplowitz’s hauntingly invasive sound design – blossom in their new environment. This is the rare contemporary play that has only gained in power as it ages.
The continually deepening importance of the text has some connection to the lingering effects of the pandemics, which caused most people to re-examine their relationships and responsibilities to society as a whole.
It also created a greater awareness of the medically vulnerable, at least among able-bodied people who previously hadn’t needed to consider how minor, everyday tasks could be impossible or life-threatening for some. Cost of Living portrays the reality of disability, with disabled actors onstage, with pathos but without schmaltz.
In shifting scenes, Eddie (David Zayas), a flawed but kind-hearted truck driver with a drinking problem, struggles to reconnect with his estranged wife Ani (Katy Solomon), who is left a quadriplegic after a car accident. Meanwhile, struggling Princeton graduate Jess (Kara Young) is hired by John (Gregg Mozgala), a privileged graduate student with cerebral palsy, to assist him in the standard activities of daily living.
Majok beautifully explores the tension in both situations. The new stage of Eddie and Ani’s relationship is influenced by their years of history together – their interactions are peppered with a bone-deep knowledge of what makes each other tick. Sullivan is delightfully foul-mouthed and unsentimental, always showing an irascible spark that explains why Eddie remains besotted with her, even at her most febrile.
Through John and Jess, we see how the boundaries of a professional relationship can erode when the nature of the work is personal. Arrogant and self-confident, John toys with Jess’s emotions, and while she can give as good as she gets, her empathetic nature is no real match for his glib worldview. A scene in which their wires get crossed in a particularly hurtful way is devastating.
Mozgala – who, along with Sullivan, is a holdover from the Off-Broadway production – balances John’s bravado with the tiniest bit of vulnerability. He is a wonderfully physical actor, and his body language often conveys the calculations that John makes when he must place himself in Jess’s care.
Young, who made a splash last Broadway season with her Tony-nominated performance in Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, continues to prove herself one of New York’s most interesting rising actors. As an Ivy League graduate working a string of minimum-wage jobs to support herself, she shows Jess’s constant awareness of inhabiting multiple worlds, and how the promise of upward mobility inherent in elite education is not always realized. Like Mozgala, with whom she generates a palpable chemistry, she hints at the vulnerability beneath Jess’s considerable pride.
In many ways, though, Zayas’s Eddie anchors the play, beginning with a wrenchingly tender opening monologue that verbalizes the complicated interplay of love and loss. Zayas shows us a deeply imperfect yet palpably human individual, trying hard (and sometimes failing) to be the best man he can be.
Imperfection is at the heart of Cost of Living: at one point or another, each of the four characters fail to be as compassionate, understanding, or generous as they could. Majok shows that this, too, is part of the human experience. Falling short is part of the cost of living, no different from a bill you can’t afford to pay.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes