Review: An Uneven, But Still Powerful "Sweat"

September 10, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Sweat," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, Aug. 29 - Oct. 7, 2018

In Brief: Lynn Nottage's pulitzer prize winner examines the human consequences of Corporate greed with power and poetry. The production isn't as compelling as the writing but still manages to build to a shattering climax.

In Sweat, author Lynn Nottage aims her fury in two directions at once. First and foremost, the play is a blunt political screed – a searing indictment of the evils of Capitalism. It’s also a human tragedy – a disquieting account of working class desperation, unfulfilled lives, and the racial tensions that surface among close friends when their factory jobs head south to Mexico.

Sound familiar? It’s sad to note that though it takes place ten to twenty years ago and was first produced in 2015, Nottage’s play could be ripped from today’s anti-NAFTA, job-outsourcing, income-gap-widening headlines and the misery these policies have and continue to inflict on many middle class Americans.

The sobering tale opens with a short prologue set in 2008. A parole officer meets with Jason (Will Hochman), an angry, sullen young white man just out of prison and sporting White supremacist tattoos on his face. The scene shifts to another exchange, this time between the officer and the more sympathetic Chris (Grantham Coleman), an African-American, also recently released from jail.

Both men are fearful and confused. They don’t know how to restart their lives. We don’t know what crimes they committed or how they’re connected to each other. We won’t find out until a crucial moment much later in the play, a device that Nottage uses to bring the narrative to a powerful, elegiac resolution.

The action quickly moves back in time to 2000. We are in a characterless bar in depressed Reading, Pennsylvania. This is where we meet the three women whose stories form the core of the personal side of the narrative.

Tracey (Mary Mara) and Jessie (Amy Pietz), both white, and Cynthia (Portia), who is black, are lifelong close friends and co-workers at the local mill. They have decent union jobs, but that is about to change as Nottage introduces several pieces of critical information: There’s a rare job opening for an entry-level but higher paying management position that both Tracey and Cynthia want, and the women have heard rumors that the mill might be laying off some workers.

"Sweat is powerful, poetic, direct, disturbing. Even in a somewhat anemic production, the playwright’s words resonate."

Cynthia gets the job; she’s no longer on the factory floor with her buddies. When the mill bosses demand wage concessions, then lock out the union workers, but not Cynthia, Tracey’s jealousy escalates into full-blown bitterness and resentment.

The stage is set for a series of worsening frustrations, recriminations, and confrontations that examine what happens to blue-collar lives, already stretched thin financially and emotionally. After months of unemployment, feelings harden, hopelessness sets in, and relationships are strained to the breaking point. The union is powerless to combat the mill owners who have moved production to cheap labor factories out of the country.

Despondent and broke, Tracey descends into drug addiction. Her son Jason grows embittered. Cynthia finally loses her job, too, and her house along with it. Her son Chris, who hoped to escape a life of wearisome labor by becoming a teacher, can no longer afford college tuition. As if things aren’t bad enough, Cynthia’s good-for-nothing ex-husband Brucie shows up, asking for money.

All of this leads inexorably to Jason’s and Chris’s deadly clash with the bar manager, Stan (a steady Michael O’Keefe), and the Hispanic busboy, Oscar (Peter Mendoza), followed by the play’s swift, mournful denouement.

Although it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017, Sweat has a few flaws. The first act is a bit flat. It feels as if its purpose is to be mostly expository, reserving the high drama and emotional fireworks for the second act. In the end, Nottage’s resolute but variable plotting succeeds, for the most part. To her credit, she delivers a powerful, graceful finale that mostly makes up for the earlier deficiencies.

The earnest, somewhat plodding production at The Mark Taper Forum is more problematic, failing to redeem itself to the same degree as Nottage’s writing does. Overwhelmed by Christopher Barreca’s too big, exceptionally drab set, the actors struggle under Lisa Peterson’s lackluster direction to reconcile the two dimensions of Nottage’s storyline.

Their work is more dutiful than inspired. Their passion, such as it is, certainly didn’t reach the last row of the theater where I was sitting. Perhaps those seated closer to the stage might feel differently.

Mary Mara’s Tracey was perhaps the least successful portrayal of the night. She’s overexcited and overwrought from the beginning, leaving little room for her character to grow into the rage that brings the plot to a boiling point.

Peter Mendoza, as the busboy Oscar, is also a little pallid in a part that, to be fair, is deliberately underwritten. He was riveting in the title role in this year’s Elliot, A Solider’s Fugue, so we know he can do much more if given the chance.

Another issue for the audience is that the play switches back and forth in time repeatedly, creating some confusion as to the sequence of events. The dates of each scene are projected on the set in an effort to provide some clarity.

The use of projections of news events between the scenes seems to also not to be fully realized in this Center Theatre Group production. Nottage’s text is very specific in laying out the political and social events that preceded each scene of her play. Here, the projections offer only a general feeling of social unrest and the political temperament of the times. As with other elements, more specificity and clarity might add the punch that this staging often lacks.

Still, Nottage’s profound message is unambiguous. Sweat is powerful, poetic, direct, disturbing. Even in a somewhat anemic production, the playwright’s words resonate. We hear her loud and clear.

"Sweat," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org

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