Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
At Olstead's steel tubing plant in Reading, Pennsylvania, the factory workers have become complacent, viewing their jobs as a lifetime guarantee and as a legacy passed down from parent to child. The money is good, even if the work is exhausting and dirty, even if management is indifferent to worker safety and unwilling to promote from the rank and file, and even if the monotony drives some of them to numb themselves with booze. A job at Olstead's means a lifetime of security. A young worker is ridiculed for even considering college and a teaching career. Although the whites and African Americans have bonded as co-workers, proud union members, and friends, they smugly remind a Latino job-seeker that these jealously guarded jobs are beyond his reach.
Cracks in their unity appear when management uncharacteristically promotes an African-American floor worker to low-level management, and then imposes a lockout to force the union to accept a major pay cut or lose their jobs to Mexico. In what may not be a coincidence, the recently promoted worker is forced to become the face of management during the lockout. To her former friends she is a turncoat who took advantage of her minority status. For her, it is a lifelong dream turned nightmare. When Latino workers leap at the chance to better themselves by crossing the picket lines, happily accepting the lower wages that their union counterparts have spurned, the tensions turn violent.
It's a powerful play, given a searing production by Cockroach Theatre Company. At its heart are Cynthia and Tracey, the co-workers and fast friends brought to visceral life by two outstanding actresses: Maythinee Washington as Cynthia; and Monica Heuser as Tracey. Race doesn't seem to be an issue between them until Cynthia gets the promotion that Tracey wanted. Suddenly, Cynthia's success triggers Tracey's latent racism. Never mind that Cynthia wanted it more and applied for it first, after enduring years of racism from her white supervisorsor that management may have had an underhanded reason for promoting from the floor. Both of these actresses are completely at home on stage, making their characters both real and larger than life. Their friendship is convincing, making its breakdown all the more distressing.
Also memorable is Kelly Hawes as Jessie, the co-worker who drinks herself into a stupor every night after work. At a party, she reminisces about her youthful dream of traveling the "hippie trail" through Kathmandu and other spiritual meccas of the Far Easta dream that was permanently derailed by marriage and work.
Joe Basso is excellent as bartender Stan, a former Olstead's worker whose on-the-job injury earned him a settlement that he touts as the best thing that ever happened to him. Insisting that the bar remain "neutral territory," he tries to keep the peace as the displaced workers increasingly point the finger at the more recent immigrants they blame for their troubles. When the play reaches its tragic climax, his final scene is devastating.
As the Latino barback Oscar, who provokes the ire of the locked-out workers when he takes their place on the factory floor, Richie Villafuerte is both convincing and understated, giving one of his best performances yet.
Not all of the cast possess the skill and experience of these five actors, causing the production to falter at times. But the play's chief flaw is its length. Trimming ten minutes would make it even more powerful. Because it is structured in short scenes in five different settings, there are numerous blackouts and scene changes, which add to the running time. Although the cast and crew work efficiently to make these changes as quickly as possible, the interruptions break the mood and make the audience restless. Alexia Chen's set design is not the problem; indeed, it makes good use of the space, relegating the most detailed set decorations to the upstage bar area, which is not involved in the set changes, and keeping the rest of the stage sparse. But the downstage area is simply too small to accommodate back-to-back scenes in two different living rooms, a therapist's office, the bar tables, and an alley behind the bar.
The beginnings of scenes are marked by audio clips from contemporaneous television news and political speeches. These remind us of the nationwide financial collapse that served as a backdrop to the hard times suffered by these cast-off Americans, and the massive government bailouts provided to corporations that were "too big to fail," while the jobless, in contrast, were relegated to foreclosures and opioids.
This is one of Daz Weller's best directorial efforts in Las Vegas. He has drawn top-tier performances from his most experienced cast members, and respectable work from the rest. Cockroach's Sweat is a fortuitous convergence of many talents. Catch it before it's gone.
Sweat, through April 7, 2019 at Cockroach Theatre Company, Art Square Theatre, 1025 1st St., #110, Las Vegas NV. Performances are at 8 pm (no performance April 5). For tickets ($25 general admission, $20 students, seniors, and public servants) and further information, go to www.cockroachtheatre.com.