Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Evanston Salt Costs Climbing

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 16, 2022

Jeb Kreager and Ken Leung
Photo by Monique Carboni
A palpable feeling of dread pervades Evanston, Illinois. Individuals sense an invisible hostile being when they walk into a room. A ghost of a dead grandmother appears unexpectedly on street corners. And in casual conversations, people announce mid-sentence that they are seriously contemplating suicide. In Will Arbery's strange and wonderful play Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, presented by The New Group, the impending doom of climate change, economic precariousness, and urban decay are not merely abstract concerns. They are dark and stultifying forces that can make even time go out of whack.

Set over three Januarys in 2014, 2015, and 2016, the play contains elements of Harold Pinter's existential foreboding, Edward Albee's quotidian absurdism, and Annie Baker's linguistic loopiness. Yet, in Arbery's work these all seem fresh and new. As directed with warmth and precision by Danya Taymor, the production goes to some very dark places, but in drawing out the humor in life's ridiculousness, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing is oddly and refreshingly affirming.

The play centers around Jane Maiworm (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the Assistant Director of Public Works, who oversees the staff of the town's snow removal service. The show's ungainly–but perfectly suited in its utter mundaneness–title comes from a local newspaper headline, which describes the budgetary crisis affecting the Chicago suburb. We meet two members of Maiworm's staff, salt-truck drivers Peter (Jeb Kreager), a father of a six-year-old and harboring suicidal and murderous thoughts, and Basil (Ken Leung), a Greek immigrant with grandmother issues. Rounding out the ensemble is Maiworm's daughter Jane Jr. (Rachel Sachnoff), who intends to marry a Mexican rockstar (whom she hasn't met) in order to live in a warmer climate. (Journalist and urban activist Jane Jacobs, who is prominently featured in David Hare's Straight Line Crazy, has a significant role as well.)

The first indication of looming darkness occurs after Maiworm reads the newspaper article about the town's diminishing salt supplies to her staff. It turns out, the journalist, Bill Agrigento, has committed suicide. Maiworm, who had previously beamed over being quoted in the article, ruefully tells her workers, "We were the last thing he ever wrote about," to which Peter responds, "Is that why he did it?" The question simply hangs in the air. Moments later, Peter acerbically tells his coworker, "I wanted to kill myself and then Bill Agrigento did. There's nothing new that can be done."

Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Rachel Sachnoff
Photo by Monique Carboni
All the actors give finely etched and carefully drawn performances. Kreager and Leung are perfectly matched and deliver the right amount of masculine swagger, offhand nastiness, and deep-seated pathos. Sachnoff is endearing and funny as a 31-year-old needy daughter who articulates the underlying sensation of imminent cataclysm. She pleads, "But there's something wrong! There's something under everything and it's making us all want to die! It's pushing out from under everything and it's telling us to die and you can't leave me alone with it." Desperation and bursts of confidence punctuate Sachnoff's depiction.

Yet, the standout in this production is Bernstine, who is one of New York's finest actors and is giving a career-high performance. The weight of the world rests on Maiworm's shoulders, and Bernstine beautifully shows the ways in which the character negotiates administrative responsibilities, parenting duties, and her own sexual desires. She obsesses over "heated permeable pavers," a new technology that would simultaneously make wintery streets safer, protect the environment, and save wildlife. The new roads, though, would put the salt-truck drivers out of work. Bernstine brilliantly conveys this administrative and metaphysical conundrum in every gesture, every strained smile, and every effort to not flee a room. When the character says she wishes she could give up her position as Assistant Director of Public Works to be Director of Private Works, there is manifest hopefulness.

The production benefits from excellent design by Matt Saunders (scenic), Isabella Byrd (lighting), Sarafina Bush (costumes), and Mikaal Sulaiman (sound). The creative team perfectly captures the familiarity of the salt-dome work room, a suburban home, and the inside of the truck's cabin. Rickety overhead doors, eccentric lighting effects, extra-warm clothing, and wintery street sounds evoke the coldness (both in temperature and perceptions of isolation) and preternatural anxieties that have insidiously permeated Evanston, which could be Anytown, USA.

I must confess that I have not been a champion of Arbery's past work. I found his most celebrated play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, frustrating and perplexing. After seeing Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, I think I need to give it another look.

Evanston Salt Costs Climbing
Through December 18, 2022
The New Group
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: