Theater

Ability Matters: Comparing “Cost of Living” and “End of Longing,” Two Quartets of Different Quality

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A lot has been said lately in the theater, and a certain amount done, about the matter of actors with disabilities. I’m glad the discussion is going on, but to me it dodges a main point. I’m not concerned about what disabilities actors might or might not have; what concerns me is their abilities. What limits an actor — and every actor has some limitations — may be a topic for later analysis. What’s of more immediate importance is how well the actor can convey the essence of the role. Can a wheelchair-bound actor embody the part of a championship runner? Well, maybe not if the script demands that the champ be seen running to the finish line, but few plays make such specific demands. In fact, I can think of several major plays in which former athletes are physically impaired or even, like the hero of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, confined to wheelchairs.

Martyna Majok’s The Cost of Living, currently being presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I, deals with four characters, two of whom are physically disabled and are played by actors with disabilities. They inhabit the roles convincingly. Perhaps more to the point, so do their non-disabled counterparts: The acting of all four, under Jo Bonney’s direction, is on a par of excellence. The show’s main difficulty lies not with the actors’ abilities, but with Majok’s play. Full of effective moments and often deeply felt, it lacks the connective tissue to make the interactions of its intriguing characters add up to a dramatic event.

Majok has evaded this necessary task by structuring her script as a prolonged tease. While we watch her two seemingly unconnected pairs of characters, in alternating scenes, all we’re wondering is when and how they’ll meet. The two disabled characters in fact never do. The non-disabled ones finally link up in the last scene — an encounter that goes badly awry, so badly that the one who’s starving doesn’t even get a slice of pizza out of the deal. This little frisson, like the little frissons between characters in the earlier scenes, is touching but leads nowhere, and a series of touching moments that lead nowhere can’t quite be called a play. Almost — but not quite.

It’s a pity, because Majok has a flair for character, and Bonney’s actors, as I’ve indicated, know how to make the most of it. They seize on the juicy bits of her dialogue with such relish that you almost know this isn’t going to pan out. Eddie (Victor Williams), a trucker grounded by a drinking problem, struggles to put his life back together and to repair his damaged relationship with his estranged wife, Ani (Katy Sullivan), now chair-bound by a spinal condition. Meantime, Jess (Jolly Abraham) strives to learn her new job attending on John (Gregg Mozgala), a well-off and slightly haughty CP sufferer who’s studying for a Ph.D. in political science at Princeton. (The scene is New Jersey on a succession of gray, wintry days; Eddie and Ani live in Bayonne.)

Manifestly, The Cost of Living has grander intentions. All the characters evade to some extent and keep things from one another, and Majok, in an effort to sustain dramatic interest, keeps much key information from us, withholding some until the last scene and leaving us to infer a number of matters as best we can from the meager evidence she supplies. This currently fashionable method of writing plays isn’t my favorite, but it would do if it rose to some cumulative effect, which is what doesn’t happen. Yes, I’m sorry for all the characters, and yes, we do all have to learn to care and be concerned for one another in this extremely unkind world. But you knew that already, even if Majok’s play hadn’t asked me to tell you.

The Cost of Living acquired some stature in my eyes, in retrospect, when I saw the similarly titled and similarly structured four-character work by Matthew Perry, The End of Longing, which MCC Theater has inexplicably produced at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Here again we have two couples, but this time all acquainted with each other, thanks to the painful, meant-to-be-funny “meet-cute” scene that opens the show. Perry, an actor with long experience in TV sitcoms, also plays the pivotal role of an alcoholic adman who falls for a gorgeous blonde (Jennifer Morrison), who returns his feelings but complicates the situation by being employed as a high-priced professional escort. Meantime, his simplehearted and sincere best buddy (Quincy Dunn-Baker), a construction worker, falls for the professional lady’s ultra-neurotic pal (Sue Jean Kim), who does something highly paid in the pharma industry. Their coupling moves toward permanence, while the adman and the escort try to stabilize a relationship that’s constantly going — if you’ll pardon the expression — on the rocks.

It might be possible to believe some of this, intermittently, if Perry’s writing had some center or substance to it, but it seems, instead, to jump arbitrarily from one notion to the next, often losing its way, like an easily distracted child, as it strives to make this or that effect. The pallid efforts at sitcom are succeeded by bursts of soap-opera angst with patches of feel-good sentiment spliced in. Almost nothing seems organic to the characters, a fault redoubled by Lindsay Posner’s direction, which underscores the two troublesome characters’ irritating qualities so heavily that you can’t imagine why their supposed best friends still put up with them. Kim, a skilled actor who’s done well in other contexts, gradually modulates her frantic cabaret-sketch neurasthenia into something closer to human reality, but Perry persists in making the alcoholic an uncharming, over-assertive mess, even after sobriety and earnestness have supposedly turned him around.

It’s a disheartening experience. Next to it, The Cost of Living, for all its shortcomings, seems to offer a dignified and heartfelt rebuke. The care and commitment in Majok’s writing, the gravitas with which Bonney’s cast imbues it, make the experience worth having. In contrast, even Dunn-Baker’s wholehearted performance, the best asset The End of Longing can show, seems an anomaly — as out of place in this slapdash context as a construction worker would be buddying with a booze-fuddled adman. Even the two plays’ titles are indicative: Majok’s takes a stock expression and heightens its resonance; Perry’s suggests a high-romantic concept miles away from either the action or the ambience of his script. So I reiterate the point I started with: Artists’ disabilities don’t trouble me; the decisive element is their abilities.

The Cost of Living
City Center Stage I
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212
costoflivingplay.com
Through July 16

The End of Longing
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
212-727-7722
mcctheater.org
Through July 1

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