If the pandemic taught me anything, it's that having a modicum of compassion for those in need isn't hard. Now, I don't like to think that prior to March 2020 I was a complete misanthrope, but I do believe that I had the same general disregard for other people that everyone nowadays seems to have. I never realized how much satisfaction I would find in doing the simplest things for someone else: picking up groceries for an elder who was afraid to leave the house, arranging vaccination appointments for more than 100 people who weren't tech-savvy enough to navigate the government website. I don't need applause for this; I felt it was my duty as a person in a fortunate position.
I thought about this a lot while I watched Manhattan Theatre Club's new Broadway production of Cost of Living, Martyna Majok's 2018 Pulitzer winner about the very human need for care and companionship. I thought it was a very good play (with a few caveats) back when I saw it at MTC's off-Broadway space in the summer of 2017, and Majok is very deserving of the accolades that came her way. But the Broadway mounting, with its gorgeous direction by Jo Bonney and quartet of sterling performances, is tighter and more emotional all around. Perhaps now, after nearly three difficult years that many people spent completely alone, is an even righter time for this play than ever.
Cost of Living concerns two couplings. John (Gregg Mozgala, one of two returning cast members) is a wealthy PhD student with cerebral palsy who hires Jess (Kara Young), a well-educated but financially unstable first-generation American to serve as his home aid. As an unlikely friendship blooms and suggests hints of romance, Eddie (David Zayas), a long-haul trucker, begins to look after his estranged wife, Ani (Katy Sullivan, the other original player), who lost her legs and became quadriplegic after a terrible accident. The dual plots intertwine in an unexpected way, painting a portrait of four people in desperate need for human connection, but without the vocabulary to express it.
Off-Broadway, I found the way these two different storylines eventually coalesce to be the weakest aspect of the script. Hints dropped in an opening monologue ultimately became red herrings, a crucial misunderstanding was not that well thought out, and a final act of kindness strained credulity. I buy it all now, a testament to what we've collectively been through, Bonney's thorough reexamination of the text, and two new actors, Young and Zayas, who more evenly distribute the weight of the play than their predecessors. This time, I found myself wiping away tears instead of rolling my eyes.
It helps when you have performers the caliber of Young (a Tony nominee for Clyde's last season, who has quickly become one of my favorite intuitive stage actors) and Zayas (best known as Bautista on Dexter, despite a plethora of theater credits); both actors just seem to intrinsically "get" their characters on molecular levels. They are prideful but not blinded by it, knowing when to stiffen and when to let their guards down, which heightens the power of the work from start to finish. That they're both funny and charming is a bonus; so too is their terrific chemistry with Mozgala and Sullivan.
As for Mozgala and Sullivan, who have been with this play from the beginning, their performances are wonderful, deeper than they were five years ago — and better considered, too. Mozgala has toned down a crucial aspect of his John, removing the bratty smugness that permeated his off-Broadway performance, making him instantly him more endearing. Sullivan, performing the single-most harrowing thing I've ever seen onstage, has a way with a four-letter word as she portrays a woman who has retained her Jersey toughness despite her newly acquired obstacles. They were excellent before and they're even better now, with the kind of poignant exposure that only the best actors can pull off convincingly.
That kind of nakedness permeates Bonney's production. Wilson Chin's set is a wall-less turntable that shifts us between locales, Jeff Croiter delivers the kind of stark lighting that leaves each person in a forced isolation, and Jessica Pabst costumes them in duds that add a level of character development on their own. "Polo or V-neck?" Jess asks John as she's helping him get dressed. "Cashmere, please," is his reply. Those kinds of details go a long way.
Works as good as Cost of Living don't come around very often, and they're practically never found on Broadway. So, Manhattan Theatre Club's belated transfer is a must-see for that reason alone: It's a great, great play that should be seen by anyone who missed it off-Broadway. And those who have seen it already will absolutely find it worth a revisit. Not only will it leave you laughing and crying at the same time, but it just might give you the strength to carry on.