What gives life value and makes it worth our daily toil? What does it mean to need another person, and what do we owe each other? It is a testament to the brilliant craft of Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living,” now on Broadway after a successful off Broadway run, that it poses these sorts of colossal questions in scenes so bracingly intimate that you might be tempted to look away were they not so utterly magnetic.
There’s writing specific characters that shimmer with universal truth, then there’s managing to capture, in the span of 100 minutes, how it feels to be alive. “Cost of Living,” which won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for drama, achieves insights about the human condition by zooming in on its particulars, compelling audiences to question what we take for granted and what might happen if we didn’t. It’s a heart-opening exercise in empathy deftly suited to the form, the kind of theater that imprints on the body and lives in your bones.
And, oh — how you’ll laugh! It’s how anyone manages to carry on, isn’t it?
That’s true of Eddie (David Zayas), a widower who has trekked from his New Jersey home to a Williamsburg bar, where he was invited to meet for a drink by the ghost of his dead wife. Or was it the person assigned to her old number? Does it matter? He’s here now and could use the company of whoever is around (the audience, in his opening monologue). An out-of-work truck driver who is used to loneliness and thoughts that unfurl with nowhere to go, Eddie’s need for other people hews close to the surface.
John (Gregg Mozgala), an affluent Princeton PhD candidate, needs people in a more practical sense, to help with the daily business of life — shaving, showering, getting dressed — that he can’t do himself due to cerebral palsy. He’s hiring a new home aide, a position that Jess (Kara Young) has the conviction if not the experience to take on. She went to Princeton herself, though her degree has not delivered on the promise of upward mobility; the first of her family born in America, she tends multiple bars to barely survive.
As Jess grows comfortable handling John’s morning routine, scenes prior to the death of Eddie’s wife Ani (Katy Sullivan) show him likewise caring for someone who is physically dependent. A car accident that shattered her spinal cord left Ani quadripelgic, after 20 good years of marriage and one lousy one when Eddie was unfaithful. Ani’s disability doesn’t make her any less Jersey tough, but her vulnerability opens the door to a tender yet tenacious new phase in their relationship.
The alternating two-person scenes that ensue demonstrate the awkward grace and humility of offering and receiving care, that needing and accepting help doesn’t equate with weakness, and that sublimating oneself to the needs of someone else can be a kind of holiness.
The Manhattan Theatre Club production has been expanded in scope and its sense of resonance deepened to suit the larger scale of Broadway. Director Jo Bonney’s staging feels at once grounded in the minimally suggested Garden State interiors of Wilson Chin’s set, and afloat on a cosmic plane that suits the play’s inspection of everyday life for its most essential stuff. At times the production assumes the aura of a David or Carravagio canvas set in North Jersey; pockets of deep darkness and stark shafts of light from designer Jeff Croiter and string- and piano-rich compositions by Mikaal Sulaiman lend it a sensual grandness.
But the sensational and delicately inhabited performances by the cast make “Cost of Living” one of the most poignant and arresting new dramas on Broadway in recent memory. Mozgala, who has been with his role since the play’s 2016 premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is a wry charm attack as John, with an air of confidence and cognizance of both his privilege and limitations. Sullivan, who also originated her role, brings a razor-sharp edge and a wounded ego to Ani, who confronts her own fragility with acerbic honesty. Young, a Tony nominee for Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s”, lends Jess a hard-earned frankness, which gives way to fleeting moments of precarious softness. As its everyman anchor, Zayas embodies the story’s emotional center with impeccable ease, a humble roadside philosopher with a searching heart.
The program notes that “Cost of Living” is set nearly in the present, and a five-year wait preceded its transfer to Broadway. But its illuminating meditation on the precarity of bodies in space, and on people’s interdependence on one another, could hardly speak more directly to the moment. It’s the kind of trick of timing on which the play’s axis turns, and the sort of alignment of storytelling with reality that makes live theater such a thrill.