Sweat, a new play Lynn Nottage, may make you do just that. It’s an occasionally squirmish drama that delves into the lives of a handful of residents in Reading, Pennsylvania, an industrial town weighted down by the outsourcing of factory jobs oversees.
Set back and forth between 2000 and 2008, the story follows two generations of families—one white and one black—as the impact of corporate fiscal responsibility and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) slowly chip away at the livelihood of those who have grown up in the factory.
Stan (James Colby) runs the local dive bar, which this night is occupied by a trio of women in various degrees of inebriation. The sharp-tongued Tracey (Johanna Day), the go-getter Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), and the passed-out Jessie (Allison Wright). But this is no comedic 9 to 5. These hard-working women know that the lives they are destined to lead revolve around the town’s central steel plant. An opportunity for a promotion comes up and the possibility that a move from the factory floor to a management position becomes a power play among Cynthia, who is ripe and ready for the job, and Tracey, who also throws her name into the running but with a much more skeptical perception.
We’re also introduced to Tracey’s son, Jason (Will Pullen), and Cynthia’s son, Chris (Khris Davis) as well as her drug-addicted husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks). Jason and Chris represent the new generation of Reading, Pennsylvania, and while Jason seems to be content with a future at the factory, Chris has his eye on college and getting out.
Tensions begin to rise as it becomes clear that something is amiss at the factory and equipment is removed. Cynthia has earned the promotion, driving a divide in her longtime friendship with Tracey, and when the union decides to go on strike, the tension becomes palpable. Stan’s barback, Oscar (Carlo Albán), a U.S.-born Colombian-American, decides to cross the picket line in order to earn a higher wage, and in a bubbling fit of rage, a brawl breaks out with him and the two young guys that ends in an unanticipated tragedy.
Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Ruined, paints a complex picture of race, politics and economy in a story that could easily be pulled from today’s headlines. But in order to hit such hot-button topics, the play often feels heavy on exposition with characters talking about a situation instead of living it. As the two millennials, Pullen and Davis deliver the most complex and captivating performances, showing us how the ravages of a spiraling economy can do irrevocable damage. Albán, too, delivers an endearing performance as someone discovering the cost of pursuing the American dream. The women are painted in broader strokes, but generally speaking, the cast embraces Nottage’s big themes.
Director Kate Whoriskey keeps things moving at a brisk pace, while John Lee Beatty’s inventive sets create a moody background for the action to unfold. Sweat, at times, feels stilted in its narrative, but there’s certainly enough thematic complexity to warrant its transfer from the sold-out run at the Public Theater.
Here’s what the other critics are saying:
Though it is steeped in social combustibility, “Sweat” often feels too conscientiously assembled, a point-counterpoint presentation in which every disaffected voice is allowed its how-I-got-this-way monologue. And this thoughtful, careful play only seldom acquires the distance-erasing passion of Ms. Nottage’s “Ruined,” the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner about female casualties of the Congolese civil war. The New York Times
Gripping and timely though Sweat undoubtedly is, it’s not as polished or galvanizing as Nottage’s previous work. The second half grows repetitive, rolling toward a predictable violent climax. At times, the dialogue grows preachy or on-the-nose, ticking off points about NAFTA or intersectional racism. Time Out NY
254 West 54th Street
Through September 17
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.