Lynn Nottage’s gripping but disappointing new play Sweat, which opens tonight at the Public, arrives in New York from its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival trailing hosannas and high expectations. It is, after all, a major statement on a major subject by a playwright who has already won every major prize available, including the Pulitzer for Ruined. Sweat is at least as ambitious as that story of women caught in the crossfires of history, and is in some ways similar, swapping Ruined’s civil war for Sweat’s economic crisis and Congo for Reading, Pennsylvania. But Sweat is even more schematic, investing most of its considerable intelligence and energies in diagramming a society ripped apart by anti-labor practices, and leaving the entry-level elements of drama to fend for themselves. You could say that in Sweat, Nottage inadvertently mimics the action of the factory owners she pillories, with their precise five-year plans for assets but blurry concern for actual humans. As a playwright, she’s management.
I don’t mean that she doesn’t care about the development of characters and scenes; rather, that there is something agenda-driven and overdetermined about her choices. Setting the play in Reading, that woeful city ranked poorest in the U.S. in 2011, is in itself a bit on the nose. It functions as Red Hook, Brooklyn, does in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge: as hothouse and archetype. The manufacturing base that raised all boats in Reading for decades had, by 2000, when most of the play’s action is set, seeped away sufficiently to reveal a lot of ugliness beneath. So far so good, but it is an early sign of trouble that, within the town, Nottage chooses to introduce the three women she will deploy to represent the disaster of modern labor in that hoariest of labor-play clichés, the local bar. The beers there are pulled by, you guessed it, a wise older man named Stan (James Colby) who lost a leg in an industrial accident years before. His barback is a local young Colombian-American named Oscar (Carlo Albán), whom everyone treats as if he were an illegal immigrant. Though we don’t learn the bar’s name, surely it’s the Tinder-Keg.
The spark, we know, will come from the three women. All in their 40s, they have been friends and co-workers at Olstead’s steel-tubing plant pretty much since high school, and frequently meet at the bar after their shifts or for the birthday celebrations, too evenly spaced throughout the year, that serve as tent poles to the action. Tracey (Johanna Day) is white, brassy, and proud but protective of her privilege as a third-generation worker in local industry. (Her intemperate 21-year-old son, Jason, played by Will Pullen, also works in the plant.) Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) is black, ambitious, and understandably warier; she is separated from a husband (John Earl Jelks) who has been locked out of his job at a textile mill for 93 weeks. Like Tracey, Cynthia has a 21-year-old son, Chris (Khris Davis), who also works at Olstead’s; Chris and Jason are best friends. The neat symmetry of the two mothers is not interrupted by the third woman, Jessie (Miriam Shor), who has neither husband nor child nor any apparent connection to reality; she’s drunk almost the entire time we see her. What does disrupt the precise balance of the setup is the announcement that Olstead’s is planning to hire a new manager from the ranks of its floor workers. Cynthia and Tracey both apply, promising to stay true-blue as friends and labor comrades no matter what happens. But only if you’d never seen a play would you fail to understand that, whoever gets the job, some barely subcutaneous racism will soon erupt violently.
It might also help if you’d never read about manipulative labor practices before. We know, although the women in the factory somehow don’t, that companies often promote a worker strategically before lowering the boom on the rest of the workforce. There’s something indelicate about Nottage’s use of the characters as placards and directional signals; it’s as if she decided that this time, in contrast to such earlier works as Intimate Apparel, there could be no room for subtext in a play so crowded with issues she needs to check off. The opioid epidemic among the unemployed? Check. The proto-Trumpian political anomie of white people without college degrees? Check. Not that these aren’t important topics, but they are treated so cursorily here as to seem like appliqué:
STAN: You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it’s this NAFTA bullshit —
TRACEY: What the fuck is NAFTA? Sounds like a laxative.
And when exposition is required, as it seems to be constantly, Nottage is likely to shim it into place with phrases like “So then what happened” and “I thought you knew” and “Speaking of arrests, did you guys read about Freddy in the paper this morning?”
Nottage’s surprising circularity and long-windedness here, her determination to pull on any bell that might ring, makes the play difficult to perform. It’s as if she wanted you to feel the labor of her research instead of doing everything possible to hide it. And though all the actors have excellent moments, those moments are too often interrupted with clunky passages that defy their intelligence and attenuate their portrayals. The erratic direction of Nottage’s frequent collaborator Kate Whoriskey, especially in scenes of general tumult and cross talk, doesn’t help; the buildup to violence is particularly unconvincing. (The actual violence, though, choreographed by fight director U. Jonathan Toppo, is all too effective.) And the use of period newscasts on the bar television — lots of George W. Bush campaigning — somehow seems importunate, providing “authenticity” that the actors could have provided on their own if given clearer briefs.
But whenever you begin to wonder what Nottage could be thinking moment by moment, the almost geological force of the play’s overall structure kicks in. Scenes set in 2008, primarily involving Chris and Jason at 29, act like the jaws of a vise clamping down on the past. Like Miller, Nottage certainly knows how to develop tension from the juxtaposition of formal elements and the collision course of individual needs. If she could just get her characters to fight for their own agendas instead of hers — and to sound like people instead of pickets — Sweat would be a lot more productive, and a lot less laborious.
Sweat is at the Public Theater through December 4.