Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which opens tonight on Broadway after a run last fall at the Public Theater, is a lot of great things: a deeply researched case history of the collapse of labor in America, a useful guide to understanding our own chaotic political moment, and a worthy attempt to put serious material before a wider public in a commercial environment. What it isn’t, I’m sorry to say, is a great play; though improved in some ways, it remains pretty much as I found it downtown: gripping but disappointing. Why?
The starkest way of understanding the problem may be to look at the contrast between its framing scenes, set in 2008, and the main story, set eight years earlier. The framing scenes involve two young men, formerly best friends, both recently out of prison for a crime they committed together. Separately in the real world, but together in stage space, they are interviewed by a probation officer who, in his own tough-love way, is trying to make sure they don’t disintegrate on the outside. Despite the familiar setup, these scenes are full of emotion and mystery; the young men are confused, scared, and way too beaten down by disappointment to carry anything like an agenda. But the main story, which takes up the bulk of the action, is precisely the opposite. It’s all agenda, no mystery. When a steel-tubing factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, starts demanding concessions from its workers, you know at once how the struggle will play out among the three women, all friends and longtime employees, whom Nottage has created to make her points.
Those points aren’t false; Nottage and the director Kate Whoriskey spent prodigious time in Reading to make sure of that. It’s the characters who are. Their nimbus of traits — Tracey is brassy, Cynthia gritty, Jessie oblivious — feel like collections of color-coded Post-it notes slapped around them. They are way too prone to state, in surprisingly bald exposition that keeps going throughout the play, exactly who they are. What they don’t so much do is show us who they are in action; indeed, what I realized seeing the play again is that its central conflict — between Tracey, who is white, and Cynthia, who is black — is trumped-up. This is not to say that longtime friendships have not been shattered over work disputes, or that work disputes have not surfaced the subcutaneous racism of white people hanging on to their last scrap of privilege. But nothing in Sweat convinces us that these particular women, as established, could develop in the way the play forces them to. Tracey especially, despite Johanna Day’s valiant performance, is bent so far out of shape by the dramatic agenda that she no longer makes any sense.
I wanted her to: The political aptness of the play makes you eager to do your part to keep its dramatic engine running. But that’s ultimately a kind of bad faith, and all the pep and big emoting of Whoriskey’s production can’t overcome it. The actors are quite often stuck overindicating their outrage and excitement, a problem made more evident by the lovely but few moments in which they do not. (Khris Davis and Will Pullen as the two young men are as stagey in the main story as they are haunting in the frame.) Michelle Wilson, as Cynthia, is further hampered by a burden of illogic the playwright puts on her: She must defend herself repeatedly against charges from Tracey that are so unfair even Tracey could not believe them. Only Alison Wright, a star of The Americans who has joined the cast as Jessie, gets enough breathing room to underplay — but then, she’s passed-out drunk much of the time.
So this is a dilemma. Critics frequently complain about the lack of serious theater on contemporary political themes in our diet, let alone theater that brings more than just one racial or socioeconomic perspective to bear. Nottage provides these things as generously as anyone has; indeed, even the black-white conflict of the play is complicated by the presence of a Colombian-American character who is mistreated by everyone. The playwright’s generosity may be part of the problem, though. As I wrote last year, there’s a checklist quality to the dramaturgy that begins to feel obligatory: white privilege, white nationalism, Rust Belt deindustrialization, the Whartonizing of management, the opiate epidemic — all, and many more, get their due.
But great drama takes place in the space between people. The interplay of ideas can of course be a part of that, but only a part. Characters aren’t pundits, and plots aren’t treatises. Nottage knows this; her 2003 play Intimate Apparel was profoundly human while still scoring its important points. In writing Sweat, she must have believed that the politics were too important to be bossed around by the personalities. But we shouldn’t be surprised, then, if the personalities sometimes refuse to work.
Sweat is at Studio 54.