The title of Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living is not just a metaphor. Ani (Katy Sullivan) has separated from her husband, Eddie (David Zayas). A divorce means she loses her health insurance. Ani has no legs, and without insurance, the cost of living—the cost of being alive—would be too high. For Jess (Kara Young), who works at bars during the night and as a caregiver during the day, the bills are insurmountable: rent, necessities, cash to send home to her sick mother, who left the United States to seek better health care. For her client, John (Gregg Mozgala), the cost of living is high, but he can afford it. He needs Jess to bathe, shave, and dress, but he pursues his doctoral studies without any financial burdens.
And for Eddie, whose extramarital affair has flamed out, and who clearly wants to return home, the cost is especially high: the play is told in flashback, after we learn that Ani has died. Over one hour forty minutes, we watch this separated couple fall back in love, knowing that these are their final days together. “The shit that happens is not to be understood,” says Eddie, in the first line of Cost of Living. “That’s from the Bible.”
The pathos here comes primarily from the nature of their love. After twenty years together, Eddie’s return is not full of grandiose promises and bold declarations. Instead, he performs the unglamorous labors of a lifetime spent together: he shows up when others fall through. He listens. And he bathes her. This is, of course, what Jess does for John, but the exchange of money there pollutes an otherwise friendly dynamic. He is her boss, and he wields this power with questionable motives.
Cost of Living is an unassuming but effective play, the kind of tragedy that stings sharper because all the characters are flawed but none is evil. Eddie drank, but he’s twelve years sober. He cheated, but he came home with renewed commitment. Even John, whose class loyalties ultimately prove disappointing, is not a terrible person, just one whose money has dulled his empathy. Further, Majok’s characters meet their fates with black humor rather than sentimentality. “Self-pity has little currency in these characters’ worlds,” she writes in her notes on performance. The result is sobering. This is a play that asks why life must be so expensive—both literally and metaphorically.
Cost of Living runs through November 6th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 254 W. 54th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 40 minutes. No intermission. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.