THE BASICS: SWEAT, a play by Lynn Nottage, directed by Victoria Pérez, starring Johnny Barden, Diane DiBernardo, Alejandro Gabriel Gómez, Jake Hayes, Peter Johnson, David Mitchell, Davida Tolbert, John Vines and Lisa Vitrano. April 20 – May 21 Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00, presented by Road Less Traveled Productions (RLTP) 456 Main Street Buffalo NY 14202, (716) 629-3069 roadlesstraveled.com
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony-nominated for Best Play, in SWEAT, which flips back and forth between 2000 and 2008, a mixed-race group of factory workers in rust-belt Reading, Pennsylvania gather frequently at a local bar. They celebrate each other’s birthdays, take care of each other after a little too much imbibing, and in fact, two of the young men in the play are both best friends and the working sons of two of the women workers. It’s a close little group. But when their local factory, after decades, begins layoffs, demands pay cuts and other concessions, and starts shipping equipment off-site (presumably to Mexico) in the middle of the night, job security, upward mobility, race relations, trust, and friendship are threatened. Like characters in a Greek drama manipulated by the gods, the cast of SWEAT deals with the intersectionality of forces that are out of their characters’ control.
RUNTIME: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission (in the new lobby area and well-appointed bar)
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:
I once heard a story about two lab rats. For some reason, a very large rat was put into the same cage with a much smaller rat. In the morning, it turned out that one rat had killed the other. Which one? The smaller one had felt threatened and positing that life is a zero-sum game (those lab rats are pretty smart) he took matters into his own paws. We all cope with stress and what we consider existential threats differently. Nobody in the play SWEAT dies, but I still thought about those rats.
I also thought about hearing that crab fishermen can put crabs in a barrel without a lid because if one crab tries to climb up and out, the other crabs will pull it back down to their level.
And I thought about NAFTA and third-party Presidential Candidate Ross Perot’s warning to heed “that giant sucking sound” of jobs going to Mexico, a warning that was echoed by another candidate (you know his name) who won in 2016. It’s a trope that has legs. As reported in the NY Times, Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist who served during the Clinton administration, said “Things might have played out differently if NAFTA had been accompanied by an agreement between businesses and unions securing more rights for workers, along with a safety net to cope with economic dislocations…‘it was a lost opportunity.’” That’s a big if.
And I also thought about how wonderfully cast this production was, with every actor completely inhabiting his or her role. Director Victoria Pérez has a long association as an ensemble member with RLTP and has appeared on every major stage in Buffalo. So she knows who’s who and what they can do and pulled it all together in this production.
I was just about to use the phrase “brilliantly played” three times in the next paragraph below, and then again and again, so please, readers, just insert that in your mind whenever I mention any of the actors.
We begin in 2008 with parole officer Evan (Peter Johnson, whom I was so glad to see back on stage) displaying a combination of care and frustration that was, to me, an overarching theme of this play. We care about the characters, they get frustrated, and we get frustrated at their behavior. Evan’s counseling is met with defiance by his two parolees, the excitable Jason (Johnny Barden) whose face is all tatted up with a Nazi swastika and other emblems of white supremacy and Chris (Jake Hayes) who displays a more “screw this” vibe. Jason and Chris (who is Black) were once best friends. What the hell happened? For the next two and a half hours, we’re going to find out.
Then we’re off! The play progresses with all other scenes in the local bar tended by Stan (David Mitchell) who dispenses bartenderly wisdom, assisted by young bar back/porter Oscar (Alejandro Gabriél Gómez) whom the regulars think is Mexican, even though he tells them he’s actually Colombian.
The mother of Jason is Tracey (Lisa Vitrano) and we quickly see where he gets his irritability and excitability from. The mother of Chris is Cynthia (Davida Evette Tolbert), who will later in the play, when an opportunity to move from labor to management presents itself, apply for and win the job. This doesn’t sit well with Tracey, who also applied for the same job.
As the play progresses, the regulars (in particular Tracey) get more and more upset with Cynthia, accusing her of lying to them about upper management’s plans, and later, when the rank and file stage a walkout, they want Cynthia to renounce her new position and re-join them, this time on the picket line. As the factory closing looms and as the company hires temporary workers (picket line crossing scabs) tempers flare and the action rises towards the climax. The structure of the play is very Greek. While outside forces drive the action, nobody in the play looks outside Reading for a solution. That’s where their grandparents worked. That’s where their parents worked. They can’t get off the island. This is their entire world.
^ All photos by Gina Gandolfo
While everyone is talkative, argumentative, and full of the usual bullshit one hears at any local bar, two of the quieter denizens more interested in drinking than talking are Brucie (John Vines) and Jessie (Diane DiBernardo). Apropos of nothing this is the third role for DiBernardo set in a bar where usually her characters “class up” a joint, but in SWEAT her character Jessie is pretty low-bottom! Well played.
And what a bar it is (set design by Gina Boccolucci). Every set designer in Buffalo has created a bar at one time or other, each with some wonderful details that you can enjoy. For me, two favorite touches here were the mismatched bar stools and chairs but especially the gray etched window on the lavatory door. The entire set is chock full of wonderful “kitchen sink” naturalism aided by Diane Almeter Jones’s props. I’m including the ashtrays with cigarette butts under “props” which help make the scene where bartender Stan loses his temper hyper-realistic.
However, there were three aspects of SWEAT that didn’t work for me. First, were the time jumps between the years 2000 and 2008 which were a little confusing. Those, however, were not as bad as the incremental time stamps that moved us several weeks at a time (as indicated on a TV screen above the bar). That sort of visual cue works well in silent movies and melodramas, but it didn’t work for me here.
Then, there were frequent scene changes that used the fade-to-black technique that, for some reason, this season I’m finding irksome at theaters all across town. They might make a playwright’s and a production team’s jobs easier, but I’d rather see more continuity.
Finally, there was the racially mixed bar which, having grown up in rust belt Buffalo, one of the most racially divided cities in America, just didn’t seem realistic. I have worked in local factories and smaller job shops from Bethlehem Steel to Union Carbide and I never saw much integration and after-work fraternization between Blacks and Whites.
But, hey, what do I know? I’ve never written a play and Lynn Nottage has received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, once in 2009 for her play RUINED, and in 2017 for SWEAT, making her the only woman to earn that prize twice. She’s also the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. The only time I get called a “genius” is when I burn something in the toaster oven.
Still, while her plays often focus on working-class people, particularly working-class people who are Black, she herself didn’t attend state schools. In fact, she’s an Ivy Leaguer, having graduated from Brown and then the Yale School of Drama, and she’s currently an associate professor of playwriting at Columbia University. So, there’s that.
At the end of the day, though, despite my quibbles with the script, the production is absolutely first-rate with every role, as I mentioned, brilliantly played. If you want to see what high production values look like in the theater, check out SWEAT. It’s pretty cool.
Some notes of interest:
The final musical of Shea’s 2023-2024 season will be MJ THE MUSICAL (about Michael Jackson) with book by Lynn Nottage!
While it’s tempting to linger in the newly appointed RLTP lounge right up to curtain, I always recommend taking your seat early to enjoy reading the backgrounder inserts that are an RLTP tradition (yes, they’re back!). There you can read a little about Reading, PA which had the distinction of appearing in the NY Times as one of the worst poverty-stricken communities in 2007, right around the time frame of SWEAT.
Wednesday May 17 at 7:00 pm there will be an “RLTP OFF-BOOK Happy Hour Zoom Discussion Series” with Michelle Holden featuring SWEAT. To register for the FREE discussion series, visit Road Less Traveled Productions has made a number of “post-pandemic” changes to make your theater experience more enjoyable including check-in at the front door (no more waiting in line at the box office); real live ushers; printed playbills along with those fascinating inserts are back (although digital playbills will still be provided); you can pre-order intermission drinks from the bar which now opens an hour before each show and stays open after Friday and Saturday shows; but note that those who arrive later than 15 minutes after the performance start time will not be permitted to enter.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
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