New York City Theater
Although “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s combustible play, takes place in two time periods, 2000 and 2008, it may as well be 2016. For the work about closing factories amid white resentment, is told through the prism of racism and class conflicts and explains, to some extent, the rise of Trumpism.
The setting is Reading, Pa., a place visited by playwright Nottage and her director, Kate Whoriskey. Using material from observation and interviews, the team configured a comedy-drama that progresses from old friendships and concerns to rivalry and violence. It’s as if fruit left too long to ripen grows rotten.
Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie are friends from way back, gathering at Stan’s bar not only to celebrate birthdays but to unwind from their factory jobs. Friends, too, are Cynthia’s son, Chris, and Tracey’s son, Jason.
Relationships are tested and broken when a management job opens up. Both Cynthia, who is black, and Tracey, who is white, vie for it, straining the friendship.
But the ladder climb is short-lived. The factory, in financial trouble, demands its workers take a 60 percent pay cut. “We’re dealing with vipers,” says one of the women. Strikes and lockouts follow. Needing to put the blame somewhere, they take out their frustrations on Stan’s helper, Oscar, an American citizen whose parents came from Colombia. A brawl that leaves people injured and incarcerated is inevitable. (The play flashes back from the aftermath to the circumstances that led to the fight.)
Despite its going back and forth in time, it’s a rather straightforward play. The superb ensemble acting is so tightly managed that we don’t get emotionally involved with any one character in particular. Yet, as a portrait of a small town in miniature, “Sweat” opens up all sorts of questions about where the country is now.
Surely, you’d think long-term friendships would triumph over scrounging for position and salary. That sentence even sounds naïve. Selfishness and greed, power and ego drive engines. The sadness of that, the sadness of what the country is becoming, stains lives.
As friendly antagonists, Michelle Wilson (Cynthia) and Johanna Day (Tracey) are excellent, as are Will Pullen’s Jason and, especially, Khris Davis’ Chris. Whoriskey’s direction goes for laid-back realism, slowly building to the explosive confrontation.
“Sweat” feels remote at first but gets under the skin. Ignoring its lessons – that people are hurting, that jobs are being lost, that blame is widespread – has led to what we now have. And that can’t be good.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 4, 2017