Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Cost of Living

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 3, 2022

Cost of Living by Martyna Majok. Directed by Jo Bonney. Scenic design by Wilson Chin. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Rob Kaplowitz. Original music by Mikaal Sulaiman Movement consultant Thomas Schall.
Cast: Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan, Kara Young, and David Zayas.
Theater: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue

Katy Sullivan and David Zayas
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
"The shit that happens is not to be understood." That's the first line from Martyna Majok's 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, making its Broadway debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. These words, the start of an exceptionally well-written and beautifully performed (by David Zayas) opening monologue, serve as a heads-up to the audience. Indeed, a good deal of that metaphoric excrement has fallen on its four characters even before we have had the chance to meet them, with more to follow. Yet it is only a partial truth, and it is vital that we flip the aphorism to its opposite side. That's because the play itself is filled with flashes of love and kindness, humor and heroism, and, yes, even hurt and anger that arm its characters in a fight against the monster of despair that might otherwise destroy everything and everyone in its wake.

Cost of Living has had several productions since it was first performed during the 2016 season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. In New York, it appeared the following year Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Given the passage of time since then, it's probably not entirely accurate to call this production a "transfer." But the Friedman Theatre is MTC's Broadway house, and two of the four cast members and director Jo Bonney have been with the show since the beginning. The result, especially if you have seen it before, is a mix of the familiar with a richness that comes from revisiting and rethinking the production.

Wilson Chin's simple but effective revolving set takes us in alternating scenes between the upscale apartment of John (Gregg Mozgala), a doctoral candidate at Princeton who is ensconced in a life of wealth and privilege, and the working class digs of Ani (Katy Sullivan), who has known neither wealth nor privilege. These two never meet, but what they have in common are serious physical challenges that require help in getting through the day. John has cerebral palsy. Ani is quadriplegic, the result of an automobile accident. Per the script, the playwright asks that disabled actors be cast in the roles of John and Ani, and in both instances, the actors have the same or similar disabilities as their characters. Mozgala and Sullivan originated these roles, and they have greatly enriched them over time.

Gregg Mozgala and Kara Young
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
John, who needs to use a wheelchair to get around, eases the problems life has burdened him with by hiring someone to take care of his physical needs. In this case, his assistant is Jess (Kara Young). We learn she is a first generation child of an immigrant, that she herself attended Princeton, and that she is now on her own, living hand-to-mouth and holding down multiple jobs, mostly working in bars late at night. How and why she has reached this state remains her business. Jess intrigues John as much as she intrigues us, and while he is rather a condescending smartass, he allows just enough shy vulnerability to peek through to set up a serious and painful misunderstanding between them.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the blue-collar part of New Jersey, there is Ani, whose life has been completely upturned and who faces it with the savagery of a cornered porcupine and the sarcasm of an attack comic. Katy Sullivan has seized on this role and turned it into an acting tour de force as she unleashes her wrath on her soon-to-be ex-husband Eddie (David Zayas). Their marriage of two decades was often a troubled one. Now, however, Eddie, a remorseful recovering alcoholic, wants to help take care of Ani. But first he must break through the wall of self-protective fury she has surrounded herself with, most likely since long before we meet her.

In alternating scenes, the play focuses on the tenuous relationships between John and Jess, between Ani and Eddie, and, in the end, between the two caregivers who carry their own deep wounds and ache of loneliness. The play's overall theme of dependence, interdependence, and codependence is a gripping one, and all four cast members and the director manage to make a virtue of avoiding full disclosure. What you see as an outsider is what you get, and what you get with Katy Sullivan's performance, in particular, will haunt you long after the final bows. There but for fortune, the "shit" that happens to them could happen to any of us.