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Cost of Living: sentiment, beauty, mistakes

by | Oct 17, 2019 | Review | 0 comments

The Arts Club Theatre/Citadel Theatre co-pro of Cost of Living is at the BMO Theatre Centre

This is where it gets beautiful. (Photo of Ashley Wright and Teal Sherer by David Cooper)

Equivocation isn’t much fun, but it’s all I’ve got.

There are strengths in the performances in this Arts Club production of Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning script is compassionate and sometimes lyrical. But there are also times when the production slackens and the script betrays itself.

There are two central relationships in Cost of Living. Ani has been severely disabled in a car accident and, when her former partner, Eddie, an out-of-work long-haul truck driver, offers to be her caregiver, she reacts with fury. “You’re not doing penance on me,” she spits. “You’re right,” he shoots back. “Because you’re not my fault.” When Ani crashed her car, she and Eddie were already separated. Still, he took his time showing up.

In a parallel storyline, John, who’s doing his PhD at Princeton, hires the financially strapped Jess to be his caregiver. John has money but Jess, who has graduated from Princeton herself, is barely surviving. Such is life in the capitalist USA.

Cost of Living is about intimacy, especially the aspect of love that’s about meeting the wounds of others with our own. Jess has no family in the US and no friends that can adequately respond to her need. And it’s clear that Eddie is struggling to stave off loneliness and despair: he keeps offering mood-lifting tips to Ani — light boxes, music therapy. “Look, I’ve seen some miraculous shit on YouTube,” he insists.

Ani and John’s most obvious vulnerabilities are physical and, in its two most memorable scenes, the script capitalizes on that.

Jess showers John and there is a kind of love in the frank acceptance with which she undresses him, tends to his naked body, and helps him to get his clothes back on.

And, in the script’s most transcendent passage, Eddie bathes Ani. With her consent, he tries to find out how much sensation she has in her body and where it is. Apparently, there’s not much below the waist. But then he lifts one of her arms out of the tub and plays her forearm as if he were playing along to the Chopin nocturnes they’re listening to.

It’s moving. It’s also a sentimental set-up. And, in this production at least, the scene overstays its welcome.

Eddie’s opening monologue also feels artificial. In it, he addresses the audience as if it were a confidante at a bar. It’s an unsophisticated device.

And Eddie, as written, verges on caricature. His obsession with the internet quickly becomes a cliché. And the basic trajectory of his relationship with Ani is obvious: for all of its superficial toughness, Cost of Living is a feel-good play.

The relationship between John and Jess does take a surprise turn, but that’s even more problematic. Jess makes a transition that comes out of nowhere and, in the twist, John’s obliviousness isn’t believable.

As an ensemble, the actors do a solid job of negotiating this inconsistent material. Playing Eddie, Ashley Wright feels as real as slush on a snowy highway. And Teal Sherer has some exquisite moments as Ani — mostly when she’s being still and just listening. But my hunch is that the role, with all of its fuck-laden speeches could sustain a more bravura performance.

Playing John, Christopher Imbrosciano started off a little arch on opening night, but settled into a more naturalistic groove.

For me, the performance of the evening is Bahareh Yaraghi’s Jess. She’s always wary, always searching.

Drew Facey’s set uses a revolve to move us efficiently from location to location. And, intriguingly, the revolve is a halo-shape that rotates through a set of doors in a static back wall. For my taste, though, that wall, which is rendered in rough white brick, and the skylights that hover over it, smack too much of Pier 1 kind of interior design: the combination feels literal and unnecessarily decorative.

There are definitely rewards in Cost of Living, but I wanted more.

COST OF LIVING By Martyna Majok. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. An Arts Club Theatre/Citadel Theatre co-production on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Wednesday, October 16. Continues until November 3. Tickets.

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