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‘Cost of Living’ Review: Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Winner Gets a Deserved Broadway Launch

Majok’s powerful new play explores two patients with physical challenges — and their likewise challenged caregivers

There are those plays that come into sharp focus only when they’re almost over. You regret not having seen the play twice even before you’ve finished seeing it once.

Martyna Majok’s challenging 2017 one-act drama, “Cost of Living,” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and is now being given its first Broadway production, at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where it opened Monday. The play tells parallel stories of two caretakers and their respective patients; and now having seen and reviewed it again, I don’t regret having seen “Cost of Living” twice.

The caretakers here are not professionals; they’re not licensed nor have they had any previous experience caring for persons with major physical challenges. Eddie (David Zayas) cares for his quadriplegic ex-wife, Ani (Katy Sullivan), while bar worker Jess (Kara Young) cares for John (Gregg Mozgala), a young man with cerebral palsy. Both Eddie and Jess need the money, desperately. John has plenty of it, and even makes a breathtaking comment about not hiring professionals because they’re harder to sue.

It’s the kind of comment that puts a caretaker on her mettle, so to speak. In the beginning, Ani is equally abrasive. She has insurance money coming in from her recent accident, and immediately puts Eddie in the position of having to beg to care for her. He’ll give Ani better and, above all, cheaper service. At least that’s what he says.

Over the course of several scenes, Majok carefully constructs how the caretaker and the patient come to depend on each other. This interdependence holds no surprises, except for one major near-catastrophe in the bathroom and one misread invitation for a date. Seeing “Cost of Living” a second time, I’m not so sure one of these patients depends on the caretaker much beyond the daily showers and dressings. One thing is for certain: Both caretakers are in need of a lot of help.

Mozgala and Sullivan repeat their tough, resilient performances as the patients from the original Off Broadway production. They’re ultimately sympathetic because they never beg for our sympathy. Young, unfortunately, does pander. She is the kind of empathetic actor who could charm the shell off an armadillo. Occasionally, she overdoes it. One exchange she has with Mozgala sees her giving such a fussy line reading that the audience broke into applause. On some level that kind of display must be gratifying for an actor, but it subverts the character Young is playing. Jess is not a show-off.

Kara Young and Gregg Mozgala in "The Cost of Living" (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Gregg Mozgala and Kara Young in “The Cost of Living” (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Zayas is far more subtle in his effects. A moment at the bathtub, where he practices his nonexistent piano-playing skills at the keyboard on Ani’s arm, exudes a deep erotic intimacy. It’s a virtuoso performance.

The first time around, I found Jo Bonney’s direction a little too measured. Each scene and its revelations unfold at a deliberate, unvaried pace over the course of 100 minutes. She was right, I was wrong. Hers is the right way to direct “Cost of Living,” but you maybe need to have seen the play twice to realize that.

About masking in the theater: Kudos to the Manhattan Theatre Club for continuing to require theatergoers to wear a mask in a Broadway theater. The mandate still continues at most nonprofit Off Broadway theaters and the Metropolitan Opera, but on Broadway, it is pretty much your choice. Curiously, even though it was not required of them, most theatergoers this past weekend donned a mask for “Leopoldstadt.” But at the musicals “1776” and “Funny Girl,” if I come down with COVID, I know which shows to blame.