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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 26, 2017

Sweat by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jennifer Moeller. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Projection design by Jeff Sugg. Makeup & hair design by Leah J. Loukas. Fight Director U. Jonathan Toppo. Cast: Carlo Albán, James Colby, Khris Davis, Johanna Day, John Earl Jelks, Will Pullen, Lance Coadie Williams, Michelle Wilson, Alison Wright.
Theatre: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day
Photo by Joan Marcus

When Lynn Nottage's new play Sweat opened at The Public Theater last year right before election day (November 3, to be exact) it made one kind of political statement. Now that Kate Whoriskey's production has opened at Studio 54, it makes a very different one. The span of four and a half months has transformed a basic if well-intentioned look at the lower depths of the working class into a plea for tolerance and compassion well beyond the management-labor dynamic. It's not just that it's crucial to understand the people—it's also crucial to treat them like people, or maybe something even more.

It's a subtle but significant journey for this play, Nottage's first on Broadway, and one that buoys it against a handful of standard-issue components that threaten to impede its emotional development across two and a half affecting hours. Nottage falls back on tired tricks she didn't need in, say, Intimate Apparel and Ruined (the two plays for which she's best known): A framing device reveals the fates of major characters before we see the actions that brought them there, putting the brakes on much of the long-tail suspense; and certain relationships and plot treatments ring more with the necessity of a playwright searching for locomotion than flesh-and-blood human beings searching for themselves.

But it's to Nottage and Whoriskey's credit that these minor issues don't gum up the gears too much. What's front and center is exactly what should be: the workers of the Olstead manufacturing plant in Reading, Pennsylvania, coping with the slow-but-steady dissolution of the town's way of life and livelihood throughout the year 2000. (The constant platitudes from then-candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jr., form a key part of sound designers' Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's background soundtrack, and Jeff Sugg's period-setting projections.)

Their foremost avatars are both middle-aged examples of what Olstead's has long meant to the community. The white Tracey (Johanna Day) is a legacy: her father preceded her, her husband died in the line of duty to the line, and her 21-year-old son, Jason (Will Pullen), is coming up behind her. Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), has a very different story—she's black, and saw the factory as a way out and a way up, a sentiment echoed by her son, Chris (Kris Davis), who perceives it only as a temporary means to an end—but no less devotion. What's most evident when they congregate at the local bar managed by Stan (James Colby), a former Olstead hand who was forced out after he was crippled in an accident, often with their often-drunk friend Jessie (Alison Wright), is that they care about what they're doing and how they're doing it, and would have no compunction against spending their lives in service to their jobs and their union.

Johanna Day with Alison Wright, Khris Davis, James Colby,
Carlo Albán, and Will Pullen
Photo by Joan Marcus

Times, alas, are a-changin'. Cynthia's husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), has been locked out of a neighboring plant for two years, and has fallen on hard times exacerbated by a newfound drug addiction. Rumors are that, despite offering someone on the floor a promotion to management, Olstead's is looking to downsize and outsource, burnishing Mexico's economy while tarnishing Reading's. And Oscar (a charming and earnest Carlo Albán), the bar's Columbian-American busboy, keeps insisting the top brass are advertising jobs at the Latino community center, even though well-connected Tracey hasn't heard of any openings. It doesn't take much time for everyone to discover that something, and something not so nice, is afoot.

What that is, and what it means, probably doesn't need to be stated; Nottage has not done a lot of complex narrative crafting here. But what she has done is strong and smart, and addresses the many simmering tensions on which the play is constructed. The relationships between not just Tracey and Cynthia, but also between Jason and Chris, Cynthia and Brucie, Tracey and Stan, and so on, believably weave together concerns of class, race, and advancement without aggressive overstatement. (Only once, in a smoking scene between Tracey and Oscar, does the dynamic seem strained.)

This attention to emotional detail makes the eventual breakdown of the foundational bonds that much more powerful and its aftermath easier to swallow. Some stress is created by the linear, even predictable, structuring; we know, for example, when it's revealed that all three women celebrate their birthdays at the bar, that we're going to see each and every one). But it melts away because Nottage does not shy from exploring, occasionally in brutal fashion, how America's ever-evolving work life changes, in ways both subtle and sweeping, the souls of those who are subjected to it. Sweat ultimately feels real because the people in it who are sweating feel real.

Day, in particular, expertly captures the resigned, burned-out nature of a toiling woman who's grown accustomed to her cage, with her anger always residing just beneath the skin. Handsomely contrasting this is Wilson, who shows how Cynthia's position has tamed her but not transformed her, leaving her forever fighting a battle between who she wants to be and who she is. (This internal conflict, perhaps more than any other, defines the play at its best.) Colby is excellent as the go-along-to-get-along working stiff in an alien environment, an elder statesman thrust onto a battlefield. Pullen and Davis adeptly channel the energy of youth into their impetuous portrayals, and Jelks the weariness of time into his. Only Wright, the sole new cast member, doesn't yet fit in; her broad take on Jessie lacks hard-skinned, wasted-away veneer that could make her essential in spite of her underdevelopment.

Whoriskey's staging is fluid, sharp, and honest, accentuated by a gritty revolving set (by John Lee Beatty), stark costumes (Jennifer Moeller) and lights (Peter Kaczorowski), and unsettlingly forthright fight direction (U. Jonathan Toppo). But one imagines that, properly equipped, it's easy to bring to life Nottage's world: It's already breathing, pulsating, and raging, it just needs an outlet.

The unspoken, unspeakable, moral is that though men and women get fired, machines are moved down south, and factories close, things never change that much. It's not hard to believe a lot of these characters, their families, or their coworkers would have one day ended up voting for Donald Trump (who, to the surprise of many, carried not just Berks County, where Reading is located, but the state of Pennsylvania). It can be tough to predict where desperation will lead, but seeking out its source is the first step to salving the wounds, both visible and not, that are increasingly dotting the aching heart of America. Sweat doesn't have many answers, but in giving voice to the voiceless, the understanding it inspires is, if not everything, an important start.


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