Sharp and threatening as a box cutter blade, Lynn Nottage’s drama Sweat opened last fall at the Public Theater shortly before the election, an unnervingly prescient reality check even before Donald Trump’s victory. “No play in recent memory has shed more light on the crises and tribulations of America’s great retrenched working middle class,” I wrote then, and that remains true these five tumultuous months later. With one cast change (Alison Wright, The Americans‘ Martha Hanson, home from undeserved exile in Russia to make her Broadway debut) this ferociously engrossing play opened Sunday night at Studio 54, marking the Broadway debut also of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ruined.
Sweat is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, a factory town whose once-proud (and decently compensated) union work force is being bled dry, first by the leveraged-buyout frenzy of the 1980s and now, if you believe the frightened, anger-fueled chatter at the local watering holes, by the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. Companies that aren’t shutting down outright and moving to Mexico and elsewhere are laying off workers whose families have invested their sweat equity in these operations for generations. They have seen their retirement funds vanish, their wages slashed as their hours are increased and conditions grow from tolerable to squalid.
And so Reading, like to many other blue-collar towns, has become a Petri dish breeding misery as people escape with booze and drugs while the poison of xenophobia festers, branding anyone with a darker skin color or a foreign accent as the enemy. The play begins in 2008 as a parole officer (Lance Coadie Williams) interrogates two recently released young men: the thoughtful, confused Chris (Khris Davis), who is African-American, and Jason (Will Pullen), who is anglo and whose tattooed face has become a White Power billboard.
They were childhood buds, their mothers best friends and longtime co-workers on the floor of a pipe-making factory. Back in 2000, Chris’ mother Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) competed with Jason’s mother Tracey (Johanna Day) for a management job, and since Cynthia won the post, their relationship has frayed, as it has with their increasingly dissolute friend Jessie (Wright). It’s all that Stan (James Colby), the bar-keep at their hangout and himself a former factory cog, can do to keep them civil, especially once the drinks start flowing.
Nottage turns up the heat by adding to this volatile mix Oscar (Carlo Albán), American-born of Colombian immigrants who sweeps up in the bar and dreams bigger, and Brucie (John Earl Jelks), Chris’s father, a pathetic addict who can still charm Cynthia. Both men are victims of a plot-line that gathers force as it becomes clear that Cynthia has, in time-honored tradition, been promoted to do the dirty work of locking out her friends and forcing a ruinous strike from which no one will emerge unscathed.
These are fully realized characters who, especially when acting on their worst fears, are grippingly human. Drawn in part from interviews the playwright and director conducted with workers in western Pennsylvania, Sweat never feels less than authentic — and crucial. That said, Sweat still suffers from preachiness and some stilted writing that raise the volume and add exclamation points where none are necessary. This seems to have worsened in the expansion to a Broadway house, where the speechifying, especially by Day’s overwrought Tracey, too often registers as harangue. Too much hollering.
By contrast, the quieter performances of the secondary characters become central in focusing the human dignity that’s being sacrificed by outside forces. That’s especially true of Wright, as the sodden Jessie, and Albán’s Oscar, who emerges as the play’s unexpected hero. These are not inconsequential flaws, but timeliness and Nottage’s uncommon empathy for each of these characters ultimately prevail. Sweat gives voice to Americans who felt unheard before November 8, when all the knowing pundits assured us that they knew better.
The book by Steven Levenson (The Unavoidable Disappearance Of Tom Durnin, The Language Of Trees) portrays teen angst taken beyond the normal boundaries with compelling dignity. Equally important, the team is equally smart and attuned to the role of adults in what to outsiders must seem impossible to believe: Evan (Platt, a star of the Pitch Perfect films who also had a much-praised run in The Book Of Mormon) has been encouraged by his therapist to write letters to himself articulating his hopes and dreams. He finally complies with a letter expressing his hopelessness but for the existence of Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss, wonderful), his secret crush. “All my hope is pinned on Zoe,” he writes, signing the letter, “Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend, Me.”