Until Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living” takes a forced, not very credible late-play turn, the drama is riveting and deeply moving as a result of the writing, the poignancy attached to the characters and the true-to-life acting.
The production by the Manhattan Theatre Club in association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival has been directed with utmost sensitivity by Jo Bonney, at least until what seems a clumsy, tacked on conclusion.
John, upscale, well-educated, witty and brilliantly played by Gregg Mozgala, is mostly confined to a wheelchair due to his severe cerebral palsy. He needs a part-time caretaker, and applying for the job is Jess, played by Jolly Abraham. John is prickly as he interrogates her as to why she wants the job, and not cowed, she responds in kind with her explanation. After such entertaining sparring, Jess is hired. Mozgala isn’t only acting effectively; he also has cerebral palsy in real life.
When the location changes, there is another case of a physical challenge. Ani, portrayed with defiant gusto and rat-a-tat-tat, amusing profanity that masks her inner pain, has lost both legs in an auto accident. She is played by the wonderful Katy Sullivan, who in real life also is legless. Mozgala and Sullivan do not rely on their personal situations for audience sympathy. Everything effective that they do is earned by their excellent acting.
The fourth character in the play is Eddie, an out-of-work truck driver portrayed profoundly by Victor Williams. He and Ani, although still legally married, were separated before the accident. He is lonely and sad and returns to Ani both out of lingering affection and a desire to care for her. She exudes resentment and insists on his departing, but she is also susceptible to his sincerity despite the talk of divorce.
There are scenes in the play that are erotic and extremely sensitive. In one, Jess gives John the shower he cannot take alone, and as they banter, she undresses him until he is totally nude and maneuvers him into position. There is gentle sensuality, although Jess hands him a washcloth to do his privates on his own. The scene communicates the extent of John’s basic physical helplessness and Jess’s adjustment to her task.
In Ani’s apartment, we see her in a bath with Eddie attending to her. She forthrightly wants him to attempt to use his hand to see if she can feel pleasure, and he, somewhat embarrassingly, slides his hand into the tub water and obliges. Even more sensuous is the way in which at one point he very delicately runs his fingers along her arm. There would at that moment seem hope that she and Eddie could get back together.
As for John and Jesse, we observe an increasing attraction for her on his part, and she agrees to come back at night for what would seem to be a date unrelated to her work. We wonder what will happen.
Essentially the beauty of the play in its writing, acting and contemplating of the challenging situations has all been set before us. But suddenly the author takes us down a further road that undercuts everything that has gone before, and although still deeply moved by what has passed, one might wish that the play had undergone a severe back-end edit. At Stage I, New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed June 9, 2017.