In Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, which makes its much anticipated NYC premiere, Ani and Eddie are a recently separated couple living in Bayonne, NJ. Eddie, a long-distance trucker with a gentle demeanor, is seeing someone else now but the problem between these two isn’t unfaithfulness but the wrongs and hurt feelings that can accumulate in a relationship. Ani sums up the situation in her frank way: “We got too many trumps on each other.” Recently, things have become even more complicated between them because the feisty redhead who says this has a new trump on her husband: following a car accident in the wake of their separation, she is a quadriplegic. And while Ani isn’t looking for Eddie’s sympathy, her condition is undeniably wearing down their antipathies for each other.
Their story doesn’t end there (although strictly speaking it does: we meet Eddie after Ani’s death from a complication of her accident and their story is told through a flashback, as Eddie recounts it to a stranger in a bar): trumps again create hurdles for a second couple, formed by John and Jess, who have also been thrown together by dependency. John is confined to a wheelchair and needs an aide to bathe and dress him every day. But since he has only just hired Jess to help him in that capacity, what these two will use to leverage the balance of power in their relationship isn’t personal, but rather social and economic.
John is a Harvard educated, financially independent grad student on a full scholarship. Jess, too, went to an Ivy (Princeton, where John is now pursuing his Ph.D in political science) and graduated with honors, but she is also a first-generation American struggling to support her sick and aging parents who have returned to their home country. To do so, she is working two late night cocktail shifts but needs this job with John, even if it means starting at 6 AM. For his part, John can’t understand why a young, fellow Ivy Leaguer would do the hard, menial labor he requires. “You’re not,” he coolly remarks, “what usually applies for this job.” To which Jess responds, “If you don’t understand why where I went to school, that I went to school, doesn’t mean shit for some people””then I dunno what yer paying for in [grad school].” It might be that class and ethnicity are as big an obstacle to Jess’s dreams as John’s disability may be for him. As she admits with some fatality, she has already “lived a lot of life.”
But John is oblivious to Jess’s problems, nor do we grasp the full extent until later in the play, and the ruse is deliberate. Majok hangs these two, parallel stories of Ani and Eddie and John and Jess on the barest framework, to question the signs we are given to interpret these characters. We know little about Jess and Eddie, but if a common complaint of people with disabilities is that a non-disabled person has trouble seeing beyond the handicap, Majok deliberately doesn’t give us much more to set our gaze on when it comes to John and especially Ani, who has no background story at all. It seems that Majok wants us to take in the reality of their disabilities before anything else, and she writes revealing and even hazardous scenes in which each is unclothed and bathed by his or her caregiver.
Ani and John are played, respectively, by Katy Sullivan, a stage and TV actress who is also a bilateral, transfemoral amputee, and Gregg Mozgala, a self-described “actor, writer, cripple” with Cerebral Palsy. Both actors have greater mobility than the characters they play, but the bathing scenes ask us to see beyond the characters’ disabilities to understand the challenges of these actors’ disabilities too. And yet, in Majok’s careful drawing of these two characters, filled in by Sullivan’s braying, North Jersey “tough” and Mozgala’s smooth, Ivy League conceit, Ani and John are no more defined by their handicaps than these actors are; it’s just part of who they are, or in Ani’s case, who she is now.
Majok instead lets setting fill in the empty spaces around this resilient quartet: it’s only an hour’s drive on the Jersey Turnpike from Bayonne to Princeton but those cities are worlds apart and stand as markers of identity in all sorts of ways here, with hints provided by the accents – particularly the “fuckin” North Jersey dialect of Ani, Eddie and Jess – and by William Chin’s set (on the one hand: Ani’s faded, gritty bathroom with footed tub – very inconvenient to be lifted into and out of; on the other: John’s sleek, design-savvy, walk-in shower outfitted with a sliding seat). Williamsburg also figures here, mocked by Eddie for its “fashions and Pabst,” and this is another nod to another remove separating these working class Bayonne lives from their more upwardly mobile, geographical neighbors. Chin’s rotating set might hint at continuity between these locations, but it isn’t supported by the text.
It’s in these subtle clues that Majok’s quietly burning play teases out the meanings and contexts of privilege and does so by means of stories that give center stage to disabilities. Of these four characters, John is clearly the most privileged, as the term is commonly meant, yet Eddie, who serves as the play’s moral anchor (played by Victor Williams with a lovable, good-natured cockiness), also sees himself as a privileged man, in the sense that he has known real happiness, in his former trucking job (lost because of a DUI) and marriage. Does long-term financial security trump a relatively short experience of love? Does mobility trump disability if the former does not cohabit with happiness but the latter does? It’s hard to assess Ani’s situation except to know that without Eddie, daily life was going to be difficult, though its challenges would not have been insurmountable in the face of her determination. Jess’s situation is probably the most precarious, and yet, as John notes in his sometimes callous way, she has beauty going for her (Jolly Abraham glows indeed in her spunky portrayal of Jess). So, what problems could she possibly have, he wonders?
Jo Bonney’s direction, whether emphasizing John’s little gestures of impatience or Ani’s thick shell (echoing Darja, the heroine of Majok’s Ironbound, set in another hard-scrabble, working-class North Jersey landscape) always underscores that these four are not on equal footing. And yet, what separates them, really? We’re hard pressed to answer that question in this compassionate portrayal of how “people are hard” but all need and deserve love, played by a cast that has also “lived a lot of life.” Taken at the level of appearances, the cost of living might not seem the same for everyone but Cost of Living posits that what matters is only how the price gets paid.