It takes too long for the plot to hit the fan.
Playwright Lynn Nottage has set Sweat in a working-class bar in Reading, Pennsylvania. A local steel-manufacturing plant defines the lives of everybody associated with the place. The central trio of women—Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie—all work on the factory floor and their mutual friendship spans decades.
There are a few variations in this portrait of the working class. Locked out of his job at another plant, Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie has hit the skids and is struggling with drug addiction. Their son Chris hopes to become a high school teacher, although few of his friends and mentors can figure out why he would want to work in such a low-paying job. And, when Cynthia, who’s black, gets promoted to management, her white friend Tracey, who also wanted the position, starts to spread the idea that Cynthia only got it because she’s black.
But nothing much happens. Act 1 of Sweat feels like a long, leaden, deliberate meditation on working-class America: job losses fuel the drug epidemic; economic disenfranchisement feeds white racism.
The dialogue is often on the nose and, when it’s not, it’s sometimes failed poetry. Jessie goes off on an aria, for instance, in which she intones the names of the cities along the hippie trail—Istanbul, Tehran, Kabul—places that, in her youth, she hoped to visit, but never will. The elegiac quality of this passage is so artificial that you can see the rivets.
And some of the design choices in director Valerie Planche’s production increase the ham-fistedness. In Daniela Masellis’s lighting design, every scene ends with a melodramatic spotlight on a featured character—like those long close-ups that cap scenes in soap operas. And, all too often, sound designer Mishelle Cuttler punctuates scene endings with loud thunks reminiscent of the swooshes from Law and Order. (Those swooshes have invaded theatrical soundscapes like a virus. We need a vaccine.)
The sum of all of this: Act 1 is very dull.
But things pick up in Act 2. Supposedly emboldened by NAFTA and the availability of cheap labour in Mexico, the management at the plant starts to lay people off and demand contract concessions. Sucker punched by global capitalism, the workers suddenly find that they can’t afford to pay their mortgages. And, to some, Oscar, the young Latino guy who cleans up at the bar, starts to look like the enemy. The play is still schematic—its characters are more emblematic than human—but at least the script finds some stakes. And there’s some gut-wrenching action.
Throughout, the performances are strong. Marci T. House fleshes out Cynthia, finding every ounce of fury, sexiness, and playfulness that Nottage allows. And Nicole St. Martin never loses sight of Tracey’s humanity, even though the character embodies much of the ugliness that fuels many of Trump’s supporters. I also particularly enjoyed Andrew Creightney’s work as Cynthia’s son Chris. The only other theatre Creightney has done is The Shipment, but his work is admirably confident, subtle, and naturalistic.
Nottage won her second Pulitzer Prize for Sweat, but her first, which was for Ruined, was more deserved. Sweat’s self-conscious earnestness weighs it down.
SWEAT By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Valerie Planche. Co-produced by the Arts Club Theatre and the Citadel Theatre.At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, October 24. Continues until November 18. Tickets.
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