Disability is a gray area when it comes to the entertainment industry. For every Children of a Lesser God, which introduced the world to deaf actor Marlee Matlin who won an Academy Award playing a deaf character, there's a My Left Foot, which led able-bodied method actor Daniel Day-Lewis to Oscar gold for his portrayal of an Irishman with cerebral palsy. The notoriously slow theater industry is not exempt from this lack of representation; recent seasons have seen actors like Daniel Radcliffe and Mark Rylance play characters with disabilities in works like The Cripple of Inishmaan and Richard III.
Slowly though, things are starting to change. In 2015, the revival of Spring Awakening employed deaf performers and the first wheelchair-bound actor to appear in a Broadway show (Ali Stroker). This season, Sam Gold's revival of The Glass Menagerie featured actor Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, as Laura.
Martyna Majok's new play, Cost of Living, directed by Jo Bonney for Manhattan Theatre Club, is a new four-character work that features people with disabilities. It focuses on how hard it is just to be a person, whether you can stand on your own or require help to do everyday tasks like bathe. It's also a deeply human depiction of life with disability.
The central characters, as it happens, are two nondisabled individuals: Eddie (Victor Williams) and Jess (Jolly Abraham). Eddie used to be a happily married trucker but got laid off after a DUI. Eddie and his wife, Ani (Katy Sullivan), are separated and in the middle of a divorce when she's in a terrible accident that leaves her quadriplegic and missing her legs. When Ani's home healthcare aid doesn't show up one night, Eddie, still her emergency contact, convinces her to give him a trial run for a week.
Meanwhile, Jess is an educated but relatively poor bartender desperate to make ends meet. John (Gregg Mozgala) is a wealthy PhD. student with cerebral palsy, looking for an aid to help wash, shave, and dress him each day. When Jess sees his advertisement, she finds herself on his doorstep — and an unlikely friendship begins to bloom.
Eventually, the two plot strands intertwine in ways that stretch credulity. The weakest aspect of Cost of Living is that it never coalesces particularly well, the distinctly individual story lines feel like separate entities with a forcefully joined conclusion. (The John and Jess plot began life as its own work, produced as part of Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual one-act marathon.)
But there's still a whole lot to savor, namely the way it doesn't condescend to any of the characters. Ani and John may be in wheelchairs, but that's the least interesting thing about them in Majok's script and Bonney's unflinching staging. Majok mines their senses of humor, diverse personality traits, and opportunities to be both likable and hateful.
Sullivan, who is both an actor and a Paralympian, is particularly excellent as a woman who has managed to retain her North Jersey edge despite her newfound obstacles (she also exquisitely takes part in one of the most harrowingly realistic moments ever seen onstage.) Mozgala allows John to be simultaneously sweet and exceedingly creepy, earning both the audience's sympathy and antipathy. Abraham and Williams complete the company by turning in performances that are emotionally naked to an astonishing degree.
That nakedness extends throughout the physical level of Bonney's production as well, complete with a see-through, wall-less turntable set by Wilson Chin, isolating lighting by Jeff Croiter, and costumes that define the financial status of each character.
As much as Cost of Living is a play about disability, it also very much focuses on what it takes to survive in a world where you are the forgotten. In this political and economic climate, both subjects ring very true. Life isn't easy, no matter what you look like, and Majok doesn't sugarcoat it.
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