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Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 



Sweat: Will Pullen, Johanna Day, James Colby, Carlo Albán, Alison Wright, Khris Davis, Michelle Wilson.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Painfully in-the-moment, playwright Lynn Nottage's new play, Sweat, at Studio 54, takes a sharp scalpel to a working class town in Berk County, Pennsylvania during the slippery slope of their American Dream and job security.  With authority and a solid nine-person ensemble, Nottage finely crafts the disintegration of opportunities, friendships and families swept up in whirlpools of disappointment and a cycle of drugs, violence and poverty. 

The Public Theater presented Sweat off-Broadway in November, shortly before the 2016 presidential election.  Topical even then, renewed political interest after the election placed it on the fast track to Broadway.  Nottage (Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined), known for her substantial research and interviews with local citizens, sets the play in 2008 in Reading, Pa.  Two young men, Chris and Jason, recently released from prison and struggling to regain their places in society, meet with parole officer (Lance Coadie Williams).  To understand why they were sent to prison, flashback to 2000 when Chris (Kris Davis), was still a teen who hoped to go to college, and his pal, Jason (Will Pullen), jittery and belligerant, would work at the factory.

Back then, generation after generation have worked at the Olstead Metal Tubing Factory, certain they were protected by unions with a pension on retirement.  Suffering long dreary hours and aching feet, deadening daily stress is temporarily relieved by heavy drinking at the local bar, and  jukebox tunes,  then back to the line the next morning.  Most workers accept the terms just as their parents did.  This is who they are.

The affable bartender, Stan, (James Colby), had worked at the factory until he had an accident.  He still keeps up with the news, chatting with customers about rumors and threats of downsizing and pay cuts. He is helped by Oscar (Carlo Albán), an American-born Colombian who cannot get a job in the factory. 

Celebrating a birthday  are 40-something Tracey (Johanna Day), hot-tempered like her son, Jason, and Chris's mother, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), African-American, with higher aspirations. Cynthia also has the burden of a drug-addicted ex-husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks).  The third bestie, Jessie (Alison Wright), is already passed out, a woman who had once dreamed of world travel but the factory line is as far as she has come. 

Tracey steps out as outspoken leader of the pack, a loyal union-worker.  When she hears of a supervising job opening, she expects to  get it and when the job goes to Cynthia, the close friendship is shaken.  Tracey believes the promotion was racially motivated as she and Jessie watch Cynthia move off the floor and up the management ladder, now neatly dressed in appropriate slacks and shirt while they labor in well-worn jeans and work boots.  Costumes by designer Jennifer Moeller speak clearly about the characters.  

Cynthia quietly warns her friends about facing a lockout if they don't take the company's sharp pay cut but they resist and join the strike. Everyone is affected, the tension builds, spreading to the bartender and the bar worker, Oscar, who crosses the picket line into the factory as a non-union worker. 

With a sure hand, director Kate Whoriskey leads this well-cast ensemble in a relentless parade from hard days and close community to collapse.  The bar, with John Lee Beatty's well-detailed setting and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski is center stage even after the violence that sends the teenagers, Jason and Chris to prison. 

The distinction is sharp and detailed between Jason and Chris.  By time they leave prison, depressed and confused, Khris Davis (The Royale) reflects Chris' lost of hope for college and his future.  Will Pullen's Jason is sharpened with anger, still hot-tempered, his face now defined with tattoos indicating Nazi sympathies.  Like their sons, Johanna Day is electric as the caustic Tracey and Michelle Wilson painfully reflects Cynthia's shocking change after the layoffs and the brutal consequences.

The unraveling of friendships and a destabilized society is the end result of a changing economic society and collapse of its hope.  Through Lynn Nottage's sensitive dialogue and dramatic instincts, the point is made that when friendships erode, fear, racism and desperation emerge with violence, poverty and drugs. 

Sweat is a memorable play for our times, about our times and our people.

Studio 54 Theatre
254 West 54 Street, NYC
Previews: Mar. 4, 2017.  Opening: Mar. 26, 2017. Closing: Sept. 17, 2017
Running time: 2hrs. 20 mins. One intermission.
Cast: Carlo Albán, James Colby, Khris Davis, Johanna Day, John Earl Jelks, Will Pullen, Lance Coadie Williams, Michelle Wilson and Alison Wright
Playwright: Lynn Nottage
Director: Kate Whoriskey

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
March 2017

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