Two of the best productions this fall have happened at intimate theaters that are keeping up with the exciting developments in American playwriting.
Earlier this season, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria” was presented by Echo Theater Company in a top-notch production that brought to Los Angeles a recent effort by one of the freshest voices writing for the stage today. At the Fountain Theatre, “Cost of Living,” Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner, is now having its West Coast premiere in a production that is on par with the Mark Taper Forum and the Geffen Playhouse at their best.
Artistic directors of theaters of all sizes would be wise to follow the leads of the Echo’s Chris Fields and the Fountain’s Stephen Sachs, who are building audience communities eager for the challenge of path-breaking plays.
Majok (“Ironbound,” “Queens”) has made it her mission to bring to the stage those characters who historically have played a subordinate role in the theater — the nameless, faceless workers who are hanging on by a thread in an economy that devours the weak, the marginalized and the unlucky. In “Cost of Living,” Majok examines the disabled and their caretakers, whose lives can be just as precarious despite not having to cope with the physical limitations of those they’re paid to assist.
Eddie (Felix Solis, firing on all cylinders) was separated from his wife, Ani (a quaking Katy Sullivan), before her tragic accident, which shattered her spinal cord and required a series of devastating surgeries. He’s living with another woman, but he’s turned up at her Jersey City apartment with the proposal of becoming her attendant. He’s still her emergency contact, and who better to lift, feed and wash her than the man who already knows her so intimately?
Sober for 12 years, Eddie carries quite a lot of baggage. He knows he’s not responsible for what happened to his wife, but he bears the brunt of her acrimony as a kind of penance. Sullivan, a double amputee who performed the play in its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016 and last year at Manhattan Theatre Club, unleashes Ani’s invectives with a potent mix of rage, laughter and grief. Although seemingly aware that he’s inevitably going to disappoint, Eddie refuses to accept that love can’t make a difference.
In a tonier part of New Jersey, Jess (a somberly ferocious Xochitl Romero) interviews for the job of taking care of John (the dashing Tobias Forrest), a wealthy Princeton graduate student with cerebral palsy. A Princeton graduate herself with a conspicuous chip on her shoulder, Jess isn’t the typical person who applies for such a position. But since her foreign-born mother left the country to receive medical care, the tirelessly competent, tough-talking young woman is doing all she can to make ends meet, including working as a cocktail waitress at various dives.
John, entitled to the point of occasional arrogance, has decided to hire outside of an agency because he wants a less structured relationship with the person who will be sponging him down each morning. It’s an intimate relationship, and he feels peculiarly vulnerable with this brusque woman, even though he’s the one with money, power and prestige.
“Cost of Living” alternates between scenes of Eddie, Ani, Jess and John that put front and center the physical realities of daily life for disabled people. Majok doesn’t shy away from the most private interactions. She shows us Ani in the bathtub getting soaped up and more by Eddie and John getting shaved and showered (equally perilous operations) by no-nonsense Jess.
The production, scrupulously directed by John Vreeke, balances discretion with daring exposure. Every naked (in all senses of the word) moment is dramatically accounted for — and with enormous care for the dignity of the actors.
Tom Buderwitz’s suitably drab scenic design is made more expressive by the modest infusion of Nicholas Santiago’s video. All the elements of the staging, including Shon LeBlanc’s costumes, infuse the quotidian with a suggestion of poetry.
Majok’s title, “Cost of Living,” is as resonant existentially as it is economically. Eddie and Jess, grappling quietly with employment woes, are holding on as best they can. But all the emotionally scarred characters are trying to bear the weight of their difficult lives.
The beauty of the play resides in the fleeting tenderness that emerges when guards are momentarily let down. This is a milieu, in which, as the playwright writes in a note in the published script, the F-word “is often used as a comma, or as a vocalized pause, akin to the word ‘like.’”
Self-pity is not an asset in the parts of New Jersey that Eddie, Ani and Jess call home. And the actors, all of them admirably dug into their roles, respect the ferocious pride as much as the anguish of their characters. Even the ending, which could in the wrong hands come off as pro forma sentimentality, is treated with appropriate caution.
The caustic anger of Ani and Jess, much of it completely understandable, makes the sudden shifts to sweetness and sorrow all the more affecting. As the extremity of all the characters’ situations becomes known, the universality of the story — a tale of need and selfish pride, resentment and resilience — shines through.
It surprised me to learn that “Cost of Living” is being adapted into a musical by the fearless Michael John LaChiusa. But after seeing the roughly lyrical Fountain Theatre production, I can imagine a chamber opera spun from this drama of inescapable interconnectedness.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Cost of Living’
Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Mondays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 16
Info: (323) 663.1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com