You can make an argument that some people in the New York audience of “Sweat,” which has just opened at Studio 54, were there as much for an explanation as for entertainment.
The working-class drama was staged last fall at The Public. In widely circulated comments after Election Day—less than a week after the play opened—one writer said, in effect: If you want to know why Donald Trump won the presidency, go see Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.”
Was that broad generalization fair? Are there clues within the author’s potent and anxiety-inducing drama for why the Rust Belt states had helped catapult a populist real estate developer to electoral victory over a career politician who was expected, at least by pollsters, to win?
After a second round with “Sweat,” the analysis seems sound.
Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Ruined,” eloquently captures the malaise among a group of longtime coworkers at a Berks County, Pennsylvania, mill. As their career prospects fade—a fate one character attributes to “that NAFTA bulls--”—they turn on one another, leading to a climax that is no less upsetting, even when you know it’s coming.
“Sweat” should be hailed for its visceral performance by Johanna Day, as the conniving and xenophobic Tracey, a longtime floor worker who sees her job as a generational entitlement. Her counterpoint and closest friend is Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), an African-American with eyes on a management position at the plant.
Tracey and Cynthia spend their off-hours time at a rundown bar, where the characters in their orbit include their sons, who also work at the factory; Stan (James Colby), the compassionate bar manager; and Oscar (Carlos Albán), a Colombian-American barback who would happily go work at the mill for a fraction of what the women earn.
With precise direction by Kate Whoriskey (“Aubergine”) and a great turntable set by John Lee Beatty, “Sweat” positively smokes through its two-hour-plus run. One exceptional scene takes place outside, behind the bar, where Tracey and Oscar have an unexpected confrontation and she learns her employer is quietly looking to hire non-union workers.
It’s a moment that establishes the despairing cascade of misery among everyone in town. The foundation on which they’ve built their lives is crumbling. Some will adapt, others will suffer the consequences: “People don’t like change,” says lager slinger Stan, in one of the drama’s more understated observations.
“Sweat” is set in 2000, but is bookended roughly by scenes set 8 years later, as Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis), Tracey and Cynthia’s by now adult children, are being individually counseled in an institutional parole office. It’s an effective device that telegraphs the conclusion without revealing too much.
Pullen is excellent as a cretinous yahoo who allows himself to be manipulated by his mother. Davis is equally on point as an ambitious young adult, torn between the “stable” future he anticipates at the factory, and an opportunity to go to college. His Chris also grapples with mixed feelings of obligation to an absent, disillusioned dad (the excellent John Earl Jelks).
Nottage, who traveled between New York and Reading, Pennsylvania, for more than two years developing her script, obviously hit on something vital in her research—with 20/20 hindsight. “Sweat” gives off a tangible vibe, and if some better understood the issues raised by this play before the election, they wouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome.
“Sweat,” at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Tickets, on sale through Sept. 17: $59-$149. Call 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn