Early on in Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, one of the characters muses that “when music plays, the body goes lookin for the things it’s missing. The broken things. The shit that’s disconnected. And it tries to bring everything back together.” As spoken by Ani (Katy Sullivan, a revelation), those lines have their own musicality: It’s there in her dulcet voice, her enjambed delivery, her penchant for profanity slipper-sliding into sensitivity. She speaks with the plainspoken lyricism that’s a hallmark of many of Majok’s characters. In this case, that includes Ani’s husband, Eddie (a buoyant David Zayas); a graduate student with cerebral palsy named John (Gregg Mozgala); and John’s caretaker, Jess (Kara Young), four New Jerseyans whose lives orbit one another.
When the play opens, it’s a week till Christmas, and Eddie is sitting in a bar in Williamsburg spangled with liquor bottles (the script specifically mentions that it’s a “post-Bloomberg” bar with a “hipster” vibe). Eddie’s the first to tell us how incongruous he feels in this establishment: a 54-year-old, out-of-work former truck driver plopped down in St. Mazie’s with “all you young people, with yer fashions” and “natural wine.” His tone is comically contemptuous, but he’s talking to us partly to still his nerves for a rendezvous that may or may not happen. He wouldn’t be here if not for the fact that he’s been sending and receiving texts from Ani’s ghost, or, rather, the person who inherited her number after she died. Longing for connection, Eddie made plans to meet this mysterious texter at the bar, and to pass the time he talks to us—and buys us drink after drink after drink (“Made a promise to myself. I start talkin’ gloom, I get it in the wallet. This place is my fuckin swear jar.”) We learn that he recently lost Ani, his wife of “twenty almost one” years, as well as his license as a cross-country truck driver, after getting a DUI—he now spends his days painting fences. Eddie reminisces about the road life: the chance to envelop oneself in breathtaking scenery (“Utah’s gorgeous and no one even knows”) and the ample time to think. If the past is a foreign country, Eddie has racked up umpteen frequent flier miles.
Cost of Living, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, allows us to accompany Eddie on a few of those journeys to the past. In one of the scenes, Ani has just moved into a new apartment, after suffering a spinal cord injury that left her a quadriplegic and becoming estranged from her husband, who cheated on her. Her new place is sparsely furnished (as Eddie wryly notes, it feels like “walkin’ into a paper bag”), and her soon-to-be ex-husband has come to retrieve some of his belongings. There follows a stilted exchange about SAD lights and suitcases, with Eddie making milquetoast suggestions for sprucing up the place and Ani brusquely deflecting any overtures toward a rapprochement. Awkward silences convey whole strata of subterranean emotions—Majok’s an archaeologist of the highest order. In her script, she carefully distinguishes between different types of silences: ellipses “are active silences,” while “[Square brackets] are words intended but unspoken.” Line breaks are used to convey the “vocal tension” of John’s cerebral palsy, and slurs are “used as a comma” or “vocalized pause.” Eddie, especially, imbues his hesitations with a wealth of meaning, as here, when he points out that he’s still listed as Ani’s emergency contact:
ANI: … I can change those forms.
EDDIE: ‘N who would you put? Who do we know in our lives who’d come? Who’s got the money or the … [responsibility] … who you think could do this? …
The tiny pauses here and elsewhere are so many threshold moments, the equivalent of doors being slammed shut or being held slightly open. Early on, those silences convey futility or resignation. Ani and her husband have “too much dirt on each other,” as she says, and even the most mundane topics—painting walls, listening to music—can uncork a geyser of raw emotion. She’s particularly uncomfortable with the fact that she’s still on Eddie’s health insurance, yet foregoing health care or searching for a separate plan is not really on the table.
In another scene, a few weeks later, Eddie has temporarily taken upon himself caretaker duties (partly out of guilt for his infidelity, partly because the health care system has failed Ani), and he gives his wife a bath. It makes for a charged moment, but not in the way you’d expect. Ani has largely retreated into a fortress of sarcasm, but Eddie is undaunted. He patiently abides by the treacherous moat of memories and eventually gets Ani to lower the drawbridge to her true feelings. She also coaxes him out of his isolation, joking about him being “a prick” and getting him to talk about playing the piano and his sobriety. Ani and Eddie begin to warm to each other once more, and even make plans to celebrate her upcoming birthday by going to Maine. That we already know, from the beginning, how their plan pans out lends the bath scene extra pathos.
Ani and Eddie’s autumnal relationship would make for a riveting play on its own, but Majok crosshatches it with another relationship that both is and isn’t parallel. Wilson Chen’s Lazy Susan set spins us between Ani’s bare-bones apartment and an upscale, whistle-clean flat belonging to John, a rich white graduate student radiating Princetonian froideur. John has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair, and, when we first meet him, is looking to hire a home aide to help shave, shower, and dress him every day. When Jess, a recent Princeton graduate who works several jobs, comes to interview for the job, the stage is set for a prickly encounter between two porcupines:
JOHN: Do you have a problem being alone?
JOHN: You would get to think a lot. Waiting’s
part of the job.
JESS: Sorry, I never worked with the, Differently-Abled—
JOHN: Don’t do that.
JOHN: Don’t call it that.
JESS: Why, I—
JOHN: Don’t call it different
JESS: Shit is that not the right term?
JESS: So what do I How do I, refer to you?
JOHN: Are you planning on talking about me?
JOHN: Why not?
I’m very interesting.
JESS: (re: bathroom) So after you, y’know, then would I have to…?
JOHN: Why do you want
JESS: I thought,
the experience and I—, it’d be a very Meaningful Experience—
JOHN: Why do you want —
JESS: The money.
Like Ani, John suffers no fools. His abrasive demeanor and initial insistence on getting Jess to see theirs as a transactional relationship puncture several stereotypes at once: that disabled people are receptacles for others’ pity, that they’re cut from a different cultural placenta, that they’re prima facie less privileged than able-bodied people. Over time, Jess and John shed some of their defenses and become more emotionally vulnerable with each other. They tease each other about their mutual preference for staying home, and, at one point, John tells Jess, “You’re not completely alone. You’ve got me in any case.” (As the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once observed, “It is joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found.”) In one remarkable scene, Jess gives John a shower (in contrast to Ani’s tub, John has an accessible shower with a chair). Remarkable not only in the way that their growing intimacy mirrors that of Ani and Eddie but also because both scenes serve, as the disability studies scholar Ann Fox has argued, as rebukes “to an ableist gaze.” Under Jo Bonney’s direction, disabled bodies are presented to us, as Fox has written, “without connotations of the freakish, fetishized, or miraculous.” (To her immense credit, Majok has insisted that the parts of Ani and John be played by actors with actual disabilities.)
Cost of Living was developed from the earlier one-act play John, Who’s Here From Cambridge, so it’s surprising that Ani and Eddie’s relationship is the one that seems to have had more time to ripen. In John and Jess’s case, the tragedy is partly that of a nonreciprocal relationship, but the lopsidedness is less than convincing, and, in retrospect, feels somewhat like a contrived way of getting the two storylines to converge in the final scene: a dual ex-machina. But that doesn’t make the fateful encounter that sews up the play any less moving (several audience members around me teared up, and I may or may not have shed a few myself). There’s an obvious symmetry to the pair of intercalated asymmetries: In each case, a caretaker caters to the needs of, and grows close to, a person with a disability. Yet Cost of Living ultimately urges us to look past these facile similarities as “narrative prostheses,” to borrow a term from disability studies, and to see these people in all their messy glory as they move about in a world rarely designed for them. When it comes to health care, the world can often seem precision engineered to work against people like Ani, who feels that “there’s no recovery from this.”
The play has lost none of its urgency since it premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in 2016. It forces us to reckon with the permeable boundary between what the social theorist Judith Butler has called “grievable” and “ungrievable” lives. Cost of Living ends in the darkest month of the year and shines a vital spotlight on the necessity of care work, the injustice of a for-profit healthcare system, and the sacrifices that underpaid care workers make so those they care for can see one more trip around the sun. As Jess tells John, “It matters who you are. Family. Connections. If there’s gonna be a net when you fall. Cuz everybody falls.” ❖
Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer based in New York whose work has appeared in 4Columns, The Baffler, BOMB, the White Review, Bookforum, Public Books, and the New Republic, among other publications.
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