Cost of Living photo still. Image courtesy of the Fountain Theatre.

by Cynthia Citron

“Cost of Living” is not a dreary treatise on economics. It’s a story about survival in the face of physical and emotional pain: aloneness, neediness, distrustfulness, catastrophic disabilities, and chronic indignation. And it is, quite simply, one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.

Playwright Martyna Majok’s remarkable play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, is not as grim as you might expect, however, given the circumstances that the protagonists find themselves in. They are four very human characters, responding with anger or laughter as the situation warrants.

First up is Eddie (Felix Solis), seated alone at a bar in Brooklyn, who provides an arresting monologue about his recently-deceased wife and his love for her — despite her anger at having to live in a wheelchair after having survived an automobile accident that left her paralyzed and with two stumps where her legs had been. Eddie, a long-distance trucker, used to text her every night when he was on the road and he continues to do so even after she dies.

Eddie covers his grief and loneliness with flailing arms and dancing feet, having previously provided humor and warmth, tenderness, and limitless patience to his understandably bad-tempered wife. She (Xochitl Romero), on the other hand, oscillated between laughter and resentment, but succumbed to his purposeful gentleness in a brilliant scene in which she lies quietly in a bathtub full of water while he bathes her.

The other couple in this extraordinary tale is John (Tobias Forrest), a wealthy grad student, a paraplegic with cerebral palsy and non-functioning hands and arms, who, like Eddie’s wife, spends his days in a wheelchair, and Ani (Katy Sullivan) a bright young woman who applies for a job as his caretaker.

Initially contemptuous of her when he learns that she has had a series of low-level jobs (her latest as a bar hostess), he perks up when she tells him she has a degree, albeit from what he considers an inferior college. But since nobody else has come forward to apply for the job, he reluctantly hires her.

Over time, as they share their life stories, they grow closer and even intimate as she shaves him and showers him, washing his entire body and his hair in a working shower onstage. And in a new growth of confidence he responds to her ministrations by coming to treat her with respect and even loses some of his more frantic facial tics.

The play is divided into time segments, with the first scene the prologue in December with Eddie in the bar and the next six in the past veering from John’s apartment in Princeton, New Jersey to Ani’s in Jersey City. Scenes seven and eight return to the present, one week before Christmas, and finally the epilogue at Eddie’s apartment in Bayonne, New Jersey, later that same night in December.

The play, with all its funny, intelligent, and engrossing talk would seem to indicate where it will all end up. But it doesn’t. It leads its players, and its audience, into a provocative contemplation of human need, and how one might construct a life in spite of being alone, incapacitated, and unfulfilled. And this incredibly gifted ensemble, under the powerful direction of John Vreeke, will leave you hopeful and exhilarated, and maybe just a bit more attuned to the people in your life.

As playwright Majok put it in an interview for Stage Buddy, “I think sometimes in trying to protect ourselves — from being hurt, from being taken advantage of, or from acknowledging the consequences of some of our own choices — that we can move away from people when perhaps we should be moving toward.”

“Cost of Living” can be seen Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through December 16 at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., (Fountain at Normandie) in Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 663-1525 or online at www.FountainTheatre.com.

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