OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic
“Sweat,” currently running on Broadway at Studio 54, seems to be a play about not what it is assumed to be about. It is not about post-election politics. It is not about the history of factory closings in America’s rust belt or the pandemic of brokenness in American cities. “Sweat” is about human brokenness, the kind of brokenness that results from making poor choices and from not caring about one’s neighbor. It is about the kind of brokenness when unconditional love and non-judgmental love are eclipsed by selfishness and mistrust.
Playwright Lynn Nottage’s play begins with parallel meetings on September 29, 2008 between parole officer Evan (Lance Coadie Williams) and two of his parolees: Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis). What is clear is that these two young men – who know each other – have done something terribly wrong together and have been released from prison. That experience has left one of them penitent and remorseful (Chris) and the other unrepentant and without remorse (Jason). What is not clear is what the friends did to land in prison for eight years and why Jason is so reluctant to reconnect with Chris.
Clarity is supposed to come from the flashbacks to the year 2000, flashbacks that occur primarily in the neighborhood bar where Jason and his mother Tracey (Johanna Day), Chris and his mother Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and his estranged addicted father Brucie (John Earl Jelks), and their mother’s co-worker Jessie (Alison Wright) gather after work at Olstead’s the steel-tubing factory where they are all employed. In these scenes – from January through November 2000 – Ms. Nottage provides the exposition that leads up to the critical moment when the audience discovers the unspeakable crime Jason and Chris commit.
The remaining characters in “Sweat” are the bartender Stan (James Colby) who was badly injured when working at the factory and his assistant Oscar (Carlo Albán). Stan has had a long-term crush on Tracey and is a gentle giant of a soul who listens with compassion to the concerns of his patrons who worry about the future of their factory jobs in an uncertain economy and worry about the motivation of their profit-driven management. Ms. Nottage has included an abundance of detail about the plight of hardworking Americans who have assumed they would retire with sizeable pensions from the factories where they worked (and some of their parents worked) all their lives. The difficulty with “Sweat” is that these characters seem to be stock composites of all those the playwright interviewed and they are not all likeable. In fact, it is an arduous tack to care for them or their conflicts.
Ms. Nottage’s characters are not universally “good” people. They have long histories of making poor choices and not learning from their mistakes. They have seen opportunities pass them by. They are mean-spirited and vengeful. Some of them are racists and their racism does not stem from economic disparities. They are often deplorable and treat one another in deplorable ways. They are caricatures of working class Americans and the actors that portray them are caricatures. They are not believable and therefore, their conflicts – as important as those are – seem less than engaging and authentic.
There are exceptions. Stan is a believable character. As is Oscar. Even Jason, despite his collusion with Chris’s crime, is “real.” Oscar is the brunt of an onslaught of racism from the other characters. Tracey assumes he is Puerto Rican and, therefore, might know someone who could burn her house down for her. Oscar is Colombian and born in America. And when he tries to warn the others that management is hiring non-union workers, they ignore him. Tracey tells Oscar, “Listen, that piece of paper that you’re holding is an insult, it don’t mean anything, Olstead’s isn’t for you.” Later, when they are shut out of the factory and Oscar goes to work full-time, they label him a “scab” and shun him. In fact, it is Oscar’s employment that initiates the horrific act committed by Jason and Chris.
Under Kate Whoriskey’s uneven direction, the cast of “Sweat” – except Mr. Albán and Mr. Colby – deliver flat performances. They are not fully to blame, however: the story line is predictable and there is really nothing new in Ms. Nottage’s examination of the matrix of inequities in the lives of working class Americans.
John Lee Beatty’s set design is perfect as is Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design. The plight of the working poor and the unemployed deserves to be exposed and narrated with pathos, logos, and ethos. Unfortunately, “Sweat” is too predictable and contrived to accomplish that task.
“Sweat” is produced on Broadway by Stuart Thompson and Louise Gund.
The cast of “Sweat” includes Carlo Alban, James Colby, Khris Davis, Johanna Day, John Earl Jelks, Will Pullen, Lance Coadie Williams, Michelle Wilson, and Alison Wright.
The creative team for “Sweat” features John Lee Beatty (scenic design), Jennifer Moeller (costume design), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting design), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound design), and Jeff Sugg (projection design). Production photos by Joan Marcus.
Tickets are available via Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or the Studio 54 Box Office (254 West 54th Street). Box office hours are Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Ticket prices range from $59 - $149. The performance schedule is Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00 p.m.; Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. The run time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Photo: (L to R) Carlo Albán, John Earl Jelks, James Colby, Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson, and Alison Wright. Credit: Joan Marcus.