OCTOBER 2019 | Volume 184
A Pulitzer Prize winner about relationship and disability, Cost of Living is powerful and moving in places but curiously sketchy as well for a play so self-consciously naturalistic. Ashlie Corcoran directs a strong cast of non-Vancouverites in another of her co-productions, this time with Edmonton’s Citadel. The jury is still out on this new direction for the Arts Club under her leadership.
The play cuts back and forth between two pairs. John (Christopher Imbrosciano), wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy, is a wealthy, arrogant PhD student—and pretty much a total asshole—who hires Jess (Bahareh Yaraghi) to care for him part-time. She already has two jobs as a cocktail waitress but needs this one desperately. We’ll later learn that she lives in her car.
Eddie (Ashley Wright) and Ani (Teal Sherer) were a long-time couple who separated just before a car accident left her wheelchair-bound and quadriplegic. Six months after her accident he comes to offer his assistance. She’s “pissed and sad,” calls him a prick and tells him, “you’re not doing penance on me,” but gradually allows him back into her life as a caregiver.
In both cases initial frostiness gives way to a détente with some tenderness, though happy endings are scarce. Along the way there’s dark comedy—Eddie, trying to get Ani to opt for an unorthodox therapy, tells her, “Look, I’ve seen some miraculous shit on YouTube”—and one especially lovely sequence where Eddie is giving her a bath. She tells him she can no longer feel any sexual sensation but only imagine it. He then quietly plays piano, as it were, along her bare arm in a prolonged, breath-holding moment of transcendent sensuality and connection.
The play’s naturalism is partly grounded in the reality of the disabled body. Both John and Ani appear completely nude, Ani in the bath, John in the shower assisted by Jess. Knowing that the two disabled characters are played by actors with similar disabilities further enhances the play’s naturalistic cred.
The other major element is the language. Ani, Jess and Eddie are all blue-collar New Yorkers who promiscuously pepper their speech with “fucking.” But it comes as a shock when wealthy, snooty, Harvard-educated John scolds Jess for calling him differently-abled: “Don’t call it differently-abled, it’s fucking retarded!” As a native New Yorker, I always have my radar out when stage characters speak Noo Yawkese. I had no trouble with any of their accents, but the language itself seemed strained in its excess of vulgarity.
All four performances are deeply felt and otherwise convincing with the two women especially embodying and barely masking their characters’ extreme vulnerability.
At 90 minutes with no intermission the play sustains its power and momentum, but at the cost of some clarity and depth. We actually learn very little about any of these characters’ lives or backgrounds beyond the moment in which they’re living. And certain things remain mysterious.
In an opening monologue Eddie, a long-distance trucker, tells us he’s doing community service but we never learn why. And why hasn’t he seen Ani for six months? Jess is sending money to her mother, who emigrated to the U.S. and then left, but we don’t know why, or why with three jobs Jess still has to live in her car. One of the characters dies before the end and the circumstances of that death remain hazy.This isn’t a Pinter play. His kind of mystery is not part of the equation here. At times the paucity of information about the characters made the play feel, to me, like a workshop draft rather than a finished piece--though my three opening-night companions felt no such thing.
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