‘SWEAT’: (left to right) John Earl Jelks, James Colby (behind bar), Michelle WIlson, Johanna Day & Alison Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus

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By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
(212-239-6200), www.sweatbroadway.com


By Scott Harrah

Friendships among coworkers at a factory in Reading, Pennsylvania are tested in this gritty drama about working-class heroes and betrayal. The show, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, transferred to Broadway after a successful run last year at the Public Theater downtown. Sweat could not be more topical and timely. In addition, the ensemble cast is so powerful and the performances so strong that it is easy to overlook most of the thematic clichés and directing flaws.

Sweat is a Rust Belt epic that goes back and forth from 2000 to 2008, set in a factory town that typifies and reflects everything we heard about “battleground states” in last year’s presidential election, with union workers worried that their jobs will be shipped to cheaper plants in Mexico. Everything about that world is here, from talk of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) to xenophobia about “outsiders” and disenfranchised whites.

The story is told in both the past and present. The opening unfolds in 2008 as parole officer Evan (Lance Coadie Williams) gives the third degree to Chris (Khris Davis) and Jason (Will Pullen), both of whom have been friends for years. Next, we go back to 2000 to a bar in which most of the story takes place. The watering hole is run by Stan (James Colby), a guy who once toiled at the mill himself and has seen and heard the troubles of local workers all his life. We meet longtime factory worker Tracey (Johanna Day) and her friends and coworkers Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Jessie (Alison Wright). Tensions arise when Cynthia applies for a management job at the plant, irking Tracey and Jessie. Can coworkers remain friends with someone once she’s promoted to management? What follows is fairly predictable, but still mirror stories of layoffs, lockouts and broken dreams in factory towns across the USA.

Other characters include bar worker Oscar (Carlo Albán), the U.S.-born son of Colombian immigrants and Cynthia’s ex Brucie (John Earl Jelks), a substance abuser. Oscar unwittingly provides even more tension for Tracey as she realizes he may take a non-union job at the plant at a far lower hourly wage than she makes.

One of the show’s only problems is Kate Whoriskey’s uneven direction. Although Ms. Whoriskey gets first-rate performances from everyone, she and fight director U. Jonathan Toppo have trouble choreographing a violent fight scene in Act II.  While this scene is crucial, most of the stage combat comes across as awkward.

The characters are multi-faceted and realistic, and although Ms. Nottage’s twists are a bit hackneyed, the cast brings a sense of authenticity to these hard-working people faced with no hope. As the three lead women, Ms. Day, Ms. Wright and Ms. Wilson are all exceptional and yell and scream with conviction. Standouts of the show include Mr. Colby as Stan, giving a gut-wrenching performance, and Mr. Albán, whose portrayal of Oscar is infused with subtle honesty and integrity.

Ms. Nottage reportedly wrote the play after conducting countless interviews with real-life factory workers in Reading, and her research ultimately paid off because, despite some shortcomings, Sweat is a thought-provoking drama that is especially relevant in modern-day America.



Edited by Scott Harrah
Published March 31, 2017
Reviewed at press performance on March 30, 2017

‘SWEAT’: (left to right) Alison Wright, Johanna Day, Khris Davis, James Colby, Carlo Alban & Will Pullen. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: (left to right) Carlo Alban, John Earl Jelks, Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson & Johanna Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: (left to right) Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson, Carlo Alban & Alison Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: Michelle Wilson & Johanna Day. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: Khris Davis & Lance Coadie Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: Alison Wright, Will Pullen & Michelle Wilson. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: Will Pullen & Khris Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: Michelle Wilson & John Earl Jelks. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: Alison Wright, Johanna Day & Michelle Wilson. Photo: Joan Marcus


‘SWEAT’: Johanna Day & Carlo Alban. Photo: Joan Marcus

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