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A CurtainUp Review
Sweat On Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
April 10, 2017 News: Sweat wins this year's Pulitzer, the second for Lynn Nottage!
These and a host of other relevant problems represented by Nottage's counterparts in Sweat, had been escalating for years before the play's 2000 to 2008 time frame. Yet seeing the play with the presidential election still up in the air when I saw it at the Public Theater last year made it eerily relevant and timely. A lot has happened since then — none of it likely to make the unhappy fall-out of what Ms. Nottage calls the De-industrialization of America and the spread in income inequality. What's more the play is more relevant and timely than ever.
I was a bit concerned about how John Lee Beatty's turntable set would work at Studio 54 which has previously been associated with musicals. But it fits the venue perfectly and the transfer overall is just fine with the entire team back on board (with just one new cast member).
And so, given that the biggest change now is that we are seeing this story in the light of disenfranchised and disillusioned blue collar workers in places like Reading having voted for Trump hoping he would make America great again." Therefore what follows is a revised version of my original review.
The actors are better than ever. Johanna Day' and Michelle Wilson have deepened their portraits of Tracey and Cynthia, and Alison Wright who now plays Jesse has not altered the dynamics of these friendships.
As Sweat is a combination of social history and tense crime drama, so the title is a double reference: to the labor Nottage s blue collar characters have shouldered to gain their share of the American Dream. . . and the current impersonal white collar managers who "don't wanna get their feet dirty, their diplomas soiled with sweat."
The play, originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sees Lynn Nottage at a pinnacle in her career. Even when she was still testing the waters as a playwright with Mud, River, Stone in 1997, Nottage created authentic, interesting and contemplation inducing characters. She followed that fledgling effort with a trilogy of plays about African-American women over various decades prompting comparisons to August Wilson's ten-decade play cycle.
While more consistently naturalistic and less poetic than Wilson, Nottage has been an adventurous stylist and rounded enough to broaden her focus. Thus the story of Esther the seamstress Intimate Apparel gained warmth and universality through several wonderful white characters. The same was true for Undine of Fabulation or The Re-Education of Undine and Vera of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
With her 2009 Pulitzer-Prize winning Ruined Nottage returned to an African locale (Mud was in Mozambique), this time to the civil war ravaged Congo where she traveled several times to interview brutalized women victims. Careful, research into the world and people she plans to fictionalize was again part of her process when she was commissioned to write a play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions project about significant points in American history, but she didn't have to travel so far this time.
Reading, Pennsylvania, a city at the tip of the Rust belt seemed a perfect place to explore the wide ranging effect on working class American lives by her interpretation of that "de-industrial revolution." The characters she created during her Reading field work ended up representing the whole gamut of this city's blue collar workers scrambling for work — not just African-Americans but equally exiled from the middle class white men and women without college educations and more recent Latino citizens attracted to Reading's one-time wealth of job opportunities.
While Sweat plays out between 2000 and 2008, paralleling George W. Bush's presidency and the aftermath of NAFTA, the struggle to adjust to the changes in the blue collar work place have continued to widen the income inequality, and will continue to do so since President Trump is unlikely to make good on the promises made while on the campaign trail.
I still find the play's structure and conflicts too schematic and familiar to really tap into my deepest emotions until late in the second act. However, this seemed less important this time around. Instead, the failure of the new administration to address the country's ever escalating local and global problems, especially of Americans like the characters in Sweat without the education to adjust to a systemically changed workplace. True the varied cast of characters somewhat too conveniently represents an over-abundance issues. Nevertheles, Sweat is now a worthy heir to Arthur Miller's American Dream destroying Death of a Salesman.
Kate Whoriskey, who also directed Ruined and Fabulations, achieves a fine balance between the familial closeness and the simmering undercurrents of potential strains in the friendships and racial harmony that will have the changes at the Olstead factory irrevocably boil over into violence.
While the playwright is clearly on the workers' side, it's to her credit that she hasn't put on blinders to hide some of her characters' failure to grow and make themselves less totally done in by changes beyond their control.
The regulars at the Berks County Bar who dominate that splendidly detailed revolving set, are hard drinking tough talkers with less than ideal family situations. Several count on their sense of entitlement to the jobs they have —, defiantly, or because of insecurity— dismissing their own or anyone else's efforts to improve themselves.
Jeff Sugg's projections enliven and illuminate the live on stage scenes which begin with a dark minimally furnished opening scene that sets up the crime element. That 2008 scene has the two youngest characters, Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) both meeting with their parole officer Evan (Lance Coadie Williams). It's to find out what they did and why, that's the raison d'etre for the flashback to 2000 and the bar where the plot unfolds. Even the lighter moments are overhung by our anticipating some sort of shocker to clarify that opening. (Though I knew what would happen, it didn't really spoil a sense of anxious anticipation). Once we flash back to the saloon we discover that Jason and Chris were good friends even though Chris is clearly the smarter, more sensitive and ambitious (and as portrayed by Khris Davis, the character who most moves us). The bar's middle-aged women regulars include Jason's tough and opinionated mom Tracey (Johanna Day adding another memorable character to a hefty resume) and Chris's determinedly ambitious mom, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson). Cynthia is not afraid to take a chance on applying for a management job and come what may she won't succumb to drugs like her estranged husband Brucie (veteran actor John Earl Jelks) has. Tracey and Cynthia's friend Jessie (new cast member Alison Wright), whose inability to deal with being deserted by her husband is something of a metaphor for the way some of of these once secure job holders will react to being orphaned by the de-industrial revolution that explodes the sense sharing good times.
Of course, any play that spends most of its time in a saloon calls for someone to pour the drinks along with some philosophical nuggets. James Colby fills the bill with a satisfying mix of humor, bitterness and poignancy. Since Colby's Stan also worked at Olstead until a faulty machine crippled him and soured him about the company's being worth three generations of loyal service, that leaves his Columbian helper Oscar (a terrifically understated Carlo Alban) as the outsider to trigger the explosion and also provide a smidgen of hope to what might alternately be titled An American Tragedy.
As I noted when I saw Sweat at the Public Theater, this wasn't the only new play to give New Yorkers a look at the sort of people who brought Bernie Sanders' "revolution" and Donald Trump's appeal to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign. I hope that the Atlantic Theater's splendid production of Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew about four people at a Detroit motor part plant that also faced with de-industrialization, will be given a second life. The more the merrier, when it comes to giving voice to this segment of the population not always front and center on New York stages.
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Sweat by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Cast: Carlo Alban (Oscar), James Colby (Stan), Khris Davis (Chris), Johanna Day (Tracey), John Earl Jelks (Brucie), Will Pullen (Jason), Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), Michelle Wilson (Cynthia), Allison Wright (Jessie).
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Projection Design: Jeff Sugg
Hair and Makeup: Leah J. Loukas
Fight Director: U.Jonathan Toppo
Stage Manager: Donald Fried
Running Time: 2 hours 1/2 hours includes one 15 minute intermission.
Studio 54 on W. 54th Street
From 3/04/17; opening 3/26/17. From
Re-reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 25th pres preview
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