Catching glimpses of a great play

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It’s easy to see why Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat” won a Pulitzer prize.

“Sweat” chronicles what happens to a union factory town when the old way of doing things isn’t doing it anymore. It’s set mostly in a local dive bar.  The kind of place you go after your shift to grab a beer. The kind of place you celebrate every birthday since - well, hell you can’t even remember it’s been so long.  

We’re somewhere in the heartland and our cast of characters all has something to do with the factory.  Either they’ve been working there since they were 18 or they were injured there and or they were locked out or they just dream of getting a job there.  The play jumps back and forth between 2000 and 2008 across the national economic divide of the Great Recession - but when you see the play the year 2016 forms something of a third key date.

2016 is the year that “Sweat” opened in New York days before our last presidential election.  It’s that 2016 election that resonates so deeply throughout the play. Ms. Nottage not only helps us imagine how we got to that place but also surfaces the anger and violence that was simmering underneath the whole time.  

The play opens with a white guy just out of prison.  His face tatted up with marks of the Aryan nation, racial epithets spewing angrily from his bitter mouth.  It’s only when we travel back in the play that we discover his best friend, who he’s now tragically linked to, was African-American.  What happened?

Over two hours and thirty minutes, the play unravels that mystery alongside the looming question of what’s going to happen with the factory at the heart of the plays world.  We’ll traverse the deep tensions between black and white. We’ll hear NAFTA cursed and watch as a Latino character is threatened as an outsider. We’ll see the scourge of opioid addiction consume lives.  We’ll feel the grip of poverty overcome the promise of a steady union paycheck.

To say that “Sweat” is a tragedy of our time doesn’t give it enough credit.

I wish I could tell you the Center Theatre Group’s production at the Taper was up to the strength of the play.  It isn’t.

This is a play, like the dive bar at its center, where authenticity is paramount.  The script demands the kind of lived pathos and experience that you can’t get mostly right.  It’s not that there’s anything terribly off about the production but the cast never really feels like a unit.  Dialogue that should have the ease and speed of old friends arguing has the stilted pacing of actors trying not to step on one another’s lines.  

The moments and actors who really do come to embody the lived tragedy of these characters just serve to reveal the moments that aren’t full.

It’s frustrating because watching “Sweat” is like catching glimmers of greatness through a locked fence - the promise is just out of reach.

Maybe that’s oddly appropriate for this great play.  There’s enough of the play there to recommend it …but I’m warning you now, you could walk out longing for the production and cast that reveals all it’s tragic power.

“Sweat” plays downtown at the Mark Taper Forum through October 7th.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz