BWW Review: COST OF LIVING, Hampstead Theatre
Hampstead hosts the UK premiere of Polish-American playwright Martyna Majok's 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, which explores - with thoughtful tenderness and a refreshing lack of schmaltz - the relationships between two people with disabilities and their carers.
Long-haul trucker Eddie returns to New Jersey to look after his now quadriplegic wife Ani, the pair cautiously re-establishing a bond even though they were in the process of divorcing. Meanwhile, broke cocktail waitress Jess is employed to assist John, a moneyed Princeton PhD student who has cerebral palsy.
Majok sensitively conveys the physical practicalities of care. Jess has to be able to lift John from his wheelchair to his shower seat, wash, shave and dress him, while a terrifying split-second event shows how completely dependent Ani is on Eddie in certain situations.
But the play opens out effectively to show different kinds of vulnerability. The enjoyably sharp - and sharp-tongued - Ani has a surer grasp on her needs and desires than the dithering Eddie, while John's comparative wealth, education and sense of community give him an advantage over the friendless Jess, whose only relative has returned to Poland because of prohibitive American healthcare costs.
It becomes difficult to discern who is relying more on whom, as Majok centres those often forgotten or left behind by an unequal society in a stark examination of alienation. Eddie establishes that theme with an aching opening monologue - directed at an unseen fellow bar patron - which, dextrously delivered by Adrian Lester, shivers with loneliness.
The twists and turns in Majok's plotting often surprise, skirting familiar narratives and instead coming closer to a believable, messy reality. But the overly neat climactic scene (which privileges the able-bodied characters' journeys) betrays that somewhat, and some of the timeline trickery and dissemination of information as mysteries distracts from the play's strengths.
However, a superb quartet of performances in Edward Hall's assured production ensures that the humanity of the piece rings out. Lester provides a shattering portrait of grief, in various forms and stages, as well as showing Eddie's both endearing and frustrating attempts to connect, make amends, and prioritise another person's point of view, even as his motives are muddied by fear and shame.
Emily Barber demonstrates that Jess is a series of defensive barriers, constructed around past trauma and disappointment, her frank pragmatism initially concealing the depth of her silent despair. It's a salient reminder that hardship isn't always obvious, and that someone's survival might depend on one act of kindness.
Paralympian Katy Sullivan, who originated the role of Ani Off-Broadway, ensures that the character isn't some stock 'inspiration' figure. She's cranky, illogical, clever, angry and yearning, spoiling for a fight with Eddie, and remaining cautious about his presence. Unlike the more matter-of-fact John, her disability is new and almost unreal to her, the tragic result of a simple car accident.
We see how she and Eddie are well-matched - albeit with plenty of bristling conflict - by their similarly caustic humour. And, in one of those hold-your-breath theatre moments, they reach a new level of intimacy through first candid revelations, then a shared physical experience that's exquisitely moving and sensual.
Jack Hunter similarly relishes the complexity of the charming, cultured yet snobbish and arrogant John, who is capable of both chummy insight and startling ruthlessness. That both disabled characters are played by actors with disabilities reinforces the authenticity of Majok's work, as well as the ways in which it gives fresh voice to particular stories and communities.
Michael Pavelka's set is backdropped by an aerial view of a car stranded in the snow - a strong visual that adds to the sense of looking at something anew, as well as illustrating how a single moment can change someone's life. Other additions, like the suspended image of a Williamsburg bar, feel over-literal; it might have been interesting to see a more symbolic interpretation of Majok's sometimes poetic text.
But this is still a richly empathetic work that asks searching questions about who or what defines us, and what we owe to each other. Frank, funny and thrumming with feeling, in its best moments it bypasses the head and strikes right at the heart.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan