Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Cost of Living
SpeakEasy Stage
Review by Josh Garstka

Lewis D. Wheeler and Stephanie Gould
Photo by Nile Scott Studios
"How much life have you lived?"

The question comes from John, a PhD student with cerebral palsy as he interviews a potential home aide to help him out. It's a question that resonates throughout Martyna Majok's Cost of Living, in which four people, all striving to make the best of difficult circumstances, struggle to articulate what they need from each other. Each of Majok's characters, in their own way, has lived a life.

SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of Cost of Living marks the play's Boston premiere, following its Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018 and a run on Broadway in 2022. Director Alex Lonati lends this staging a warmth and sensitivity that matches Majok's lean but muscular depiction of her quartet of isolated characters, as they navigate what they're able to give and how much they're willing to receive in return.

Jess (Gina Fonseca), for instance, assures John (Sean Leviashvili) during their interview that she has plenty of life experience to offer him. John has the means to hire her to do "whatever I need, within reason." But he wants to make sure she's the right fit for his specific care needs. And he has lots of questions for Jess, who tries to deflect from why she works late nights at various bars after graduating from Princeton with honors. We can intuit, as she asks what "whatever I need" really means, that she's been in situations before where the boundaries were blurred.

As this professional relationship develops, Majok interweaves their scenes with Eddie (Lewis D. Wheeler) and his estranged ex-wife Ani (Stephanie Gould), who is now a quadriplegic after an accident severely injured her spinal cord. Ani hasn't seen Eddie for six months–until one day, he comes to her home to collect some of his things. She's furious at his reappearance, coming back into her life after such a long absence during her hospitalization–and furious that he left in the first place. But Eddie, ever the gallant ex, talks her into a trial week where he plays caregiver, and she accepts, begrudgingly.

There's a difference to how these pairs approach the intimacy of their caregiving relationships. When Jess helps John with his shower each morning, it appears routine; but Eddie giving Ani a sponge bath opens up long-suppressed feelings that emerge. Majok fills these delicate scenes with plenty of silence–spaces where the unspoken dialogue underscoring each routine conversation almost feels audible.

While the intrinsic power imbalance of living with a disability, and the help it requires, is clear, Majok also examines how this dynamic shifts when things like class, upbringing, financial stability come into the mix. Jess's walls go up when John probes her on her job history. After all, he's the one with the nice apartment and a free ride for his PhD. "It matters who you are and what you have," she tells him. Don't assume you know me based on my resume.

Then's there the looming specter of healthcare costs. Our characters live in North Jersey, but they could be in any college town, where there are many Eddies desperate for their next employment, or Jesses who graduate from Ivy League schools but with no generational wealth to fall back on when times get tough. Though Ani prefers full-time treatment from her nurse, having Eddie help out for free is a more reasonable financial option.

John and Ani are both played by actors who have disabilities in compelling and unexpected performances. Leviashvili's John is often disarming, with a sly (and sometimes off-putting) sense of humor that seeks to throw Jess off her presumptions. He has the cockiness that comes from money–and a seeming obliviousness to those who are not on his level. Gould, in my favorite performance of the cast, is wickedly funny and strong-willed as Ani. She's a true Jersey girl through and through, adept at weaponizing a spiky tongue and a fleet of four-letter words to assert her space and keep others at a comfortable distance.

Wheeler and Fonseca are also excellent, Wheeler in particular inviting us in with a masterful opening monologue in which Eddie bears his past mistakes, his grief, and his need to engage with a stranger at a bar. Fonseca as Jess has her guard up and her defenses high, but like everyone else, she's looking to catch a break, hoping the world will show her some grace.

The final destination for Cost of Living ends up feeling pat and tidy, compared to everything that precedes it. But ultimately, Majok's play depends more on connection than conflict, the ways we come together despite our inner voices urging us not to. Each of her characters has withdrawn from the world, largely due to circumstances beyond their control.

In Eddie's former life as a truck driver, he had nothing but time to himself just to think. "That life is good... Except the loneliness," he recalls. "We're all of us, in motels, on the road to somewhere we ain't at yet." Maybe, soon enough, each one of us will end up somewhere new, doing our best to keep the loneliness at bay for a little while.

Cost of Living, a SpeakEasy Stage Company production, runs through March 30, 2024, at Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit, call 617-933-8600, or visit the box office at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Eddie: Lewis D. Wheeler
Jess: Gina Fonseca
John: Sean Leviashvili
Ani: Stephanie Gould

Creative Team:
Directed by Alex Lonati
Scenic Design: Janie E. Howland
Costume Design: Chelsea Kerl
Lighting Design: Amanda E. Fallon
Sound Design: Anna Drummond
Intimacy Choreography: Jesse Hinson
Production Stage Manager: Ari Welch
Assistant Stage Manager: Ross Gray