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Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: Sweat offers grim truths from blue-collar America

Written by
David Cote

Lynn Nottage’s punchy, urgent new work tracks vanishing options for blue-collar workers and their families in rural Pennsylvania from 2000 to 2008. The majority of scenes take place in the town bar where factory drones repair to guzzle beer and doubles of whiskey. The drunker Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), Tracey (Johanna Day) and Jessie (Miriam Shor) get, though, the soberer you feel: Through her power as a dramatist, Nottage makes you empathize with the desperation and rage of citizens whose lives barely affect yours—except maybe on Election Day.

I’m making assumptions here. Perhaps your family includes bona fide victims of the Great Recession, chronically unemployed and disgruntled folks who live on the dole and think the system’s rigged. Maybe you know young men like Chris (Khris Davis) and Jason (Will Pullen), directionless guys whose anger lands them in jail. As I watched Sweat and compared its characters’ lives to mine over the same period, I realized how relatively insulated I’ve been from recent economic disasters.

Nottage (Ruined, Intimate Apparel) was inspired to write Sweat after learning that Reading, Pennsylvania, was declared one of the poorest communities in the nation. She made several research trips there to interview residents. There’s no knowing how much of the script sprang from true stories (the plot includes busted friendships, drug addiction and a pivotal hate crime); let’s assume she spun fictional tragedy out of raw testimony.

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. Admittedly, bluntness has been a sine qua non of American social drama since Odets and Miller; wake-up calls are not supposed to be dainty or subtle. The acting is impassioned and full-bodied, and Kate Whoriskey’s naturalistic staging is assured, fluid and emotionally vibrant. (I do wonder if a rawer, more abstract staging would serve the play better.)

Ultimately, who is the show for? Certainly not the folks who inspired it. Non-member tickets at the Public go for $85, and they’re selling briskly to (presumably) well-heeled liberal types. I guess it’s for people like me, those freaking out and wondering how millions of Americans could be so deranged as to vote for a reality-TV clown. This, Nottage implies, is how.

Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. With Carlo Albán, James Colby, Khris Davis, Johanna Day, John Earl Jelks, Will Pullen, Miriam Shor, Lance Coadie Williams and Michelle Wilson. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Dec 4. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote     

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