Theatre Review: Sweat, Studio 54, NYC

After seeing nine musicals in a row, I thought it was time for some theatre. It was between this one, A Doll’s House Part 2 and Little Foxes, but this is the one that had rush seating available. It’s gotten pretty rave reviews, though a mediocre one in the NYT. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though its winning the Pulitzer Prize this year gave me some high hopes.

It’s an ensemble piece, mostly set around a neighbourhood bar, by Lynn Nottage, and set in the span of about a decade of decline in the industrial belt of Pennsylvania, factories shutting down (and moving to Mexico), labour strikes, NAFTA, unemployment, various addictions and a terrible incident that forms the basis of the play: what happened, and how did the characters at the end of the play get there?

I’m used to my theatre being heightened and unnatural as a way to get more deeply at our natural emotions. So, I was a bit disarmed at the regular talk of the characters. It’s not played for laughs, and there were few. There’s no particular poetry in the speech. Characters get our attention by getting louder and louder, and there’s a lot of shouting going on.

While the play has been lauded at its realistic portrayal of ‘voices that are unheard’ (i.e. the disenfranchised and ignored, Trump voters), I could feel sympathy for their situations but didn’t feel a lot of empathy. The Tony-nominated performance by Johanna Day as Tracey does feel honest, but she’s not a kind person nor unkind in an interesting way. I felt more interest in Michelle Wilson (also nominated) as Cynthia, but Tracey’s resentment of Cynthia’s job promotion doesn’t shift. She shows no understanding nor sympathy, nor can tap into their former friendship to create change. And while I admired Cynthia’s toughness and hard work, I just felt frustration that her character was stuck as she was, and then doesn’t get a break at the end of the play either.

Most of the characters are trapped by circumstance, health and finances. There are some glimmers of hope and kindness, but it’s a pretty sour situation all around. I was mostly engaged with the skill of the actors in doing quick shifts in personality or emotional state between scenes; particularly impressive are the younger male actors, Khris Davis and Will Pullen, in showing a light friendship between bros, with quick shifts to the later date where they are deeply broken.

Still, I’m not unhappy that I saw this play, which at its heart is saying: look at what has been happening in this corner of America. I just wish I could have found a bit more hope there.

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