Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living is a tender, emotional play about four lonely people seeking connections, which in and of itself is not an unusual scenario. But what is unusual about the play, which opened last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center space, is that two of the characters have disabilities and, per the playwright’s specific instructions, must be portrayed by actors with disabilities. Despite that setup, Cost of Living is not some kind of activist production trying to make a politically correct statement about people with disabilities; instead, it’s an intimate story about two men and two women facing the daily challenges that life brings them. The play begins with a long monologue by Eddie (Victor Williams), a poetic truck driver who has lost his license because of a DUI; he has also lost his wife, Ani (Katy Sullivan), who died as a result of some kind of accident that he might have been responsible for. Now sober, Eddie is in a bar, sitting in a chair and facing the audience, as if talking directly to us. Looking back at what he used to have, he says, “That life is good for people. I was thankful for every day they ain’t invented yet the trucker-robots. That life is good. The road. Sky. The scenery. Except the loneliness. Except in the case of all the, y’know, loneliness. This was what my wife was good for. Not that this was the only thing. . . . Cuz, y’know, you married a person. And a person’s gonna be a person even if they’re married. That’s a lesson. That’s a lesson for yer LIFE right there.” It’s critical that Eddie refers to Ani as a “person” here, because when we soon see her in a flashback, she is a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. She is a woman who is not defined by her physical situation, even though it is severe. Meanwhile, the secretive Jess (Jolly Abraham), a twenty-five-year-old bartender who has just graduated from Princeton, is interviewing for a job as caregiver to John (Gregg Mozgala), a hoity-toity Harvard man who has cerebral palsy and is also confined to a wheelchair. Jess’s main responsibilities are to help John shower and shave every morning, which turns out to be no easy task. “Why do you want this job?” John asks. “I thought, the experience and I — it’d be a very Meaningful Experience,” she replies. “Why do you want —” John starts to ask again but is cut off by Jess, who says, “The money.” “Good,” John adds, appreciative of the honesty. As the play goes back and forth between the two stories — which eventually come together in an unexpected way — subtle parallels are drawn between them, as Jess washes John as they grow closer, and Eddie washes Ani as they grow apart.
Expanded from Majok’s short play John, Who’s Here from Cambridge, which debuted in Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon of One-Act Plays in late spring 2015, Cost of Living is carefully constructed by Majok (Ironbound, Mouse in a Jar) and her “dream” director, Obie winner Jo Bonney (Father Comes Home from the Wars; By the Way, Meet Vera Stark). They avoid sentimentality or sympathy — although the drama is deeply involving — while treating all four people as equals. “Self-pity has little currency in these characters’ worlds,” Majok writes in her notes to the play. “Humor, however, has much.” Wilson Chin’s set rotates between John’s stylish apartment, the hipster bar, and Ani’s home, after she and Eddie have split. The cast is uniformly excellent — with a particularly moving performance by Williams (The King of Queens, Sneaky Pete) — as they face their unique challenges, all four making distinct connections. Majok, who was inspired by such writers as Danny Hoch, Raymond Carver, and Sarah Kane, also explores class, something that can be found in much of her work, influenced by her mother’s experience after immigrating to America from Poland when Majok was five. (Among other jobs, her mother was a caregiver for an elderly woman.) But most of all, Cost of Living is not about disabilities or about actors with disabilities; it’s not about race either, although of the two non-disabled characters, one is black and the other Latino in this production. It follows the lead of Deaf West Theatre’s 2015 revival of Spring Awakening, in which Ali Stoker, as Anna, became the first wheelchair-bound actor to ever appear on Broadway, and Sam Gold’s version of The Glass Menagerie, in which Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, portrayed Laura Wingfield, giving more opportunities to actors with disabilities, whether the role calls for it or not. The play also has one truly terrifying moment, causing the audience to gasp in unison and, most likely after the show, reconsider their initial thoughts regarding disabilities, especially during the curtain call, which features an added surprise. At one point, Ani asks Eddie, “If I weren’t like this right now, would you be here?” The reason to go to City Center to see Cost of Living is not because two of the actors are “like this right now”; it’s because it’s a well-written, well-directed, well-acted story about everyday life.