There are plays that by undertaking particularly challenging subjects and treating them with unabashed honesty immediately bring audiences to their side. Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, imported from the Williamstown Theatre Festival to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway space at New York City Center, falls directly into that category. It can be filed among a growing subgenre of plays that confront people with disability. For example, we recently had Samuel D. Hunter’s The Healing, which dealt with a group of friends, some disabled, some not.
But what makes these undertakings especially meaningful is casting — actors who are disabled showing up on stage. This is true, effective and welcome in Cost of Living.
Gregg Mozgala, an actor who describes himself as “a mild to moderate case of spastic Cerebral Palsy,” portrays Harvard graduate John, aided by Princeton graduate Jess (Jolly Abraham). Katy Sullivan, a performer who describes herself as a “bilateral, transfemoral congenital amputee,” plays Ani, who is cared for by Eddie (Victor Williams), her clearly remorseful ex-husband. All the actors are first-rate.
What’s common to plays like Cost of Living is that they deal with a disability that might be visible or invisible. The implication is that anyone uncomfortable around a visible disability had better do some serious rethinking when it comes to a person with a disability that is, say, less readily noticeable. This is perhaps why Eddie is the first character we meet. Sitting on a bar stool, he delivers a get-it-off-his-chest monologue about having recently lost his wife and feeling abandoned and confused. (Set designer Wilson Chin nails the bar with only a shelf of colorful liquor bottles, lighted colorfully by Jeff Croiter.)
Eddie’s confession-cum-plea is followed by alternating scenes in which Eddie sees to — and attempts to ingratiate himself with — Ani, as well as by scenes in which Jess becomes increasingly attuned to John’s bodily needs and, she hopes, eventually with his more amorous ones.
Playwright Majok patently understands the psychological complications inherent in these relationships, as does director Jo Bonney. For John, it’s slowly becoming convinced that Jess is an apt caretaker; for Jess, it’s wondering if John might provide what she feels is lacking in her life. Eventually, John invites her to drop by one evening after their usual hours together. She arrives in a tight party dress (Jessica Pabst is the costume designer) only to discover there may have been mixed signals.
For Eddie and Ani, it’s their past that still needs to be sorted out. She’s bitter about her condition and about whatever transpired between them. Eddie’s entreaties are exclusively rewarded with harsh rebuffs. His repeated contrition gets to Ani, however, and finally thaws her icy demeanor.
Majok carefully presents both couples in nude scenes, which are necessary for depicting the intimacy inherent in their circumstances. Jess undresses, showers and then dresses John, and in the process carries on a conversation with him that never becomes suggestive. It’s all touchingly natural. Eddie bathes Ani in a tub while they rehash the obstacles that keep them from getting back together. At one point, he places her limp arm on the rim of the tub and plays a silent Eric Satie piano piece on it with his fingers. (Robert Kaplowitz is the sound designer.) That sequence might be the sexiest moment on any NYC stage right now.
Maybe it’s clear that the Eddie-Ani segments are flashbacks while the John-Jess segments take place in the present. In fact, this is confirmed in the final scene, which is how Majok drives her title home. She’s writing about loss, external and internal. She insists — and who’s going to argue? — that every life has its costs; that anyone desiring a meaningful existence must face those costs, pay them and move on.
But while displaying great sympathy for Ani and John — and, by implication for people with a declared or undeclared disability anywhere — Majok doesn’t quite complete the writing task she sets for herself. While the Eddie-Ani and John-Jess scenes are clearly related, they register as disconnected. It’s as if Majok uses a shorthand to set out her case and then ends the play by shortchanging her audience. She indicates that she has more to say about her characters than Cost of Living ultimately delivers.
Still, it’s a pleasure to see Cost of Living cast in their assignments — and also at the curtain call, when any questions that the audience might have about actors with a disability are silently answered. This is, after all, a play in which disability is the subject — and while I’ve used the word numerous times in this assessment, now it’s a word that I wonder about. Maybe it isn’t the best word. Maybe people today must form new definitions. In other words, sometimes the cost of living — like Cost of Living — turns out to be one of its greatest rewards.