by Michael Bracken
Talk about the disaffected working class. Just watch the locals have a drink at Stan’s (James Colby) bar in Reading, Pennsylvania. That’s where factory workers male and female, black and white, like to congregate after work, and that’s where most of Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Sweat takes place. After runs in Oregon and D.C. and downtown at the Public Theater, her riveting drama has arrived on Broadway, where it continues to put a human face on the steady decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs in the early twenty-first century and tracks the unfortunate ramifications on friends, family, and the social fabric.
But first observe two different rooms of a parole office in 2008, smartly suggested by scenic designer John Lee Beatty with mirror image playing areas, one stage left and one stage right. In each a simple chair, with a hanging lamp above and a door behind it, faces the audience. There’s no wall between them but only one side is lit.
On the chair sits Jason (Will Pullen), white, late twenties, surly, resentful, being questioned by Evan (Lance Coadie Williams). Where’s he living? What he’s been doing? Terse responses. Jason gets to a place where he says he ran into Chris, and boom: there’s a palpable emotional shift. But it doesn’t last because the lights go down on Jason and up on Chris (Khris Davis), who’s sitting in the other chair, in the other room.
Also in his late twenties, Chris is African-American, more cooperative than Jason, nervous, confused. He answers the same questions as Jason, whom he mentions seeing. As with Jason, it’s an emotion-laden moment. Khris gives more detail, comments on Jason’s white supremacy tattoos, and says what they did was unforgivable. Flash back to the bar eight years earlier.
But it’s not Jason or Chris we see. Instead we meet Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Tracey (Johanna Day), dancing and drinking. We won’t know it for a while, but they are Jason’s (Tracey) and Chris’s (Cynthia) mothers. Along with Jessie (Alison Wright), semi-comatose on an orange leatherette banquette with her head on a table, they’re best buds. Tending bar is Stan, and standing with his arms folded is the Colombian bar boy, Oscar (Carlo Albán), ready to spring into action when there’s a messy chore to be done.
Chris and Jason, best friends like their moms, also frequent the bar. Except for Jessie’s drinking issue, courtesy of her marital breakup, life is blue collar beautiful. Just do your shift and party on. But then we meet Brucie (John Earl Jelks), Cynthia’s ex and Chris’s father. Where he used to work, management locked out union workers 93 weeks ago. He’s hurting.
Cynthia gets promoted off the floor, and suddenly there’s tension between her and Tracey, who also applied for the job upstairs. Race rears its ugly head. The factory owners want cutbacks; there’s a strike. It’s all downhill from there, and we see what Chris was talking about earlier. We fast forward to 2008 again. There’s little resolution and nothing you could call closure.
Nottage has said that she writes plays about people “marginalized by circumstances.” That’s true of pretty much everyone in Sweat, and they don’t always react with valor or fortitude. They act human, and that’s not always pretty.
We’re shown both sides of the coin using a very effective compare and contrast paradigm. Black/white, young/old, now/then: it all comes together and spins apart.
Director Kate Whoriskey and Nottage have partnered before, and it shows. Words and actions move in lockstep. Everything seems organic. Whoriskey’s assembled a crackerjack cast (all veterans from the Public production except Wright), and they deliver bigtime. You never doubt these Pennsylvanians have worked together, played together, and bent many an elbow together.
Touching and troubling, Sweat is a powerful potion that candidly explores a piece of the American dream no longer worth dreaming.
Sweat. Open run at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.SweatBroadway.com. 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus