The presidential election laid bare the divide between big-city “elites” and the “deplorables” left behind in the Rust Belt. Introducing New York audiences to a few of them in her latest play, Sweat, is Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Ruined and Intimate Apparel. They aren’t deplorable at all. But they do behave badly, if understandably given the circumstances, as the show toggles back and forth from 2008 to 2000.
In 2008, Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) meet separately with their parole officer. Neither hopes for much after prison, as their hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, is barren of jobs and opportunity. (Nottage and Kate Whoriskey, returning once more as her director, researched the play there.) But they did share a past, a content if straitened one, before an unspecified crime blighted their friendship. Much of Sweat takes place eight years before, in the bar where workers from a steel-tubing factory go to blow off steam after their increasingly long shifts.
These include the two men, plus Jason’s mother, Tracey (Johanna Day), and Chris’, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson). Tending bar, with a kind word and a baseball bat, is Stan (James Colby). He needs both: Alcohol-fueled conversations about work tend to escalate, particularly when management offers a promotion to one of the floor workers. Cynthia, who’s black, yearns to be off the line, which Tracey and their friend Jessie (Miriam Shor) can’t fathom. Wary of their union, their enemy is nonetheless management. But Tracey, who’s white, also tries for the position, and when Cynthia lands the job, needles her by playing the race card. Their relationship is further undermined as the bosses order job cuts and a union lockout, which promises to be as bad as the one that separated Cynthia from her despondent husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks). Throughout, the barroom TV blares news about elections, recession and globalization.
That TV is a problem for this achingly sincere but too didactic play. We don’t need the underscore of bad tidings, and we don’t believe that it wouldn’t be tuned to sports or something more relaxing. The larger problem is that too often the characters talk at us, rather than to us, so the performers seem to be enacting position papers. These include the largely invisible bar worker Oscar (Carlo Alban), a Colombian-American whose second-act prominence comes about in the most obvious way. And let’s face it, a bar is kind of a hokey, hothouse setting for a playwright who at her best rigorously eschews cliché.
Sweat, while not up to Nottage’s most imaginative work, does accumulate blood and tears along the way, and can’t be dismissed. Its final moment is its simplest, and strongest. What she has to say about 2016 is as pertinent as what went down in 2000 and 2008, and that is: We’re all in this together, until we aren’t.