By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 06, 2018 at 03:50 PM EDT
Craig Schwartz.

It probably goes without saying that the writing in Sweat, now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, is superb. Lynn Nottage won her second Pulitzer for it. Nottage’s searing excavation of shame and fury in the life of the dispossessed American worker does for the 21st century what Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesmen did for the 20th.

The play flits between 2000 and 2008 in a local bar in Reading, Pennsylvania. It opens with the release of Chris (a powerful Grantham Coleman) and Jason (a perfectly laconic Will Hochman) from prison after eight years before jumping back in time to 2000 and the months leading up to their unknown crime in the wake of civil unrest and a lockout of union workers at the local steel plant.

Nottage’s writing is a high-wire balancing act, somehow both utterly riveting while the dialogue and performances possess a lived-in sensibility that belies the potential powder keg of emotions in early scenes. The play is a slow burn (sometimes frustratingly so); the unraveling of lives blindsiding both the characters and the audience as they fly suddenly off the rails into unspeakable disaster. Nottage captures the ineluctable twists of fate that change the course of our lives – the first act barely simmers to a somewhat irritating degree with the focus on domestic tiffs and petty quarrels. But as tensions build and hopelessness sets in, the play careens towards inevitable tragedy as characters face the dissolution of the meager portion of the American Dream they were promised.

Engaging with the plight of the American worker, NAFTA, and the havoc that ensued in the early years of the 21st century as factory jobs disappeared and unions were broken, Sweat is like a pulsating ulcer – from its earliest moments, you know something’s not right, a sickening sensation eating away at you until its final two scenes that leave you breathless with their roiling gut-punch pain.

Christopher Barreca’s set design lends a potent backdrop for the proceedings, the familiar comfort of a local watering hole transforming with the times. It adds to the lived-in quality of the performances with its feeling that you’ve happened into a real bar, as opposed to a stage production.

Craig Schwartz.

The performances are mostly stellar. Mary Mara is particularly affecting as Tracey, a lifetime steel worker whose blousy, rough-around-the-edges demeanor devolves into an uglier latent racism and resentment as the life she’s built for herself slips further from her grasp. As Jessie, Amy Pietz nails the sad cadences of a depressed bar fly who devolves further into alcoholism as her purpose for living increasingly eludes her. John Earl Jelks reprises his role as Brucie after performing in the Broadway run, and his portrait of a man with a broken spirit as he cascades into drug addiction is one of the most chilling performances of the show, despite Jelks having some of the least stage time. The only slight disappointment is Michael O’Keefe as Stan – in early scenes, he feels flat – his performance even-keeled in a way that feels overly actor-y and considered. But his work in the final scenes, which reveals a deep moral rectitude and protectiveness, redeems his performance, lending him a moment so heartbreaking it elicits choked gasps from the audience.

Grantham Coleman and Will Hochman make a devastating team as Chris and Jason. They flip between their roles in 2008, men worn down by eight years in prison and the damage of a mistake that changed their lives in an instant. They both render the weight of the intervening years with captivating realness, contrasting it with the buoyancy of their initial scenes, the promise of their entire lives ahead of them. Coleman instills a gentleness in Chris matched by a forward-looking energy, making the future that is extinguished all the more heartbreaking. Hochman expertly crafts Jason’s path from energetic kid to a young man simmering with a barely suppressed anger that has no sufficient outlet. They, more than anyone, capture Nottage’s incisive words spoken by Evan (Kevin T. Carroll): “Most folks think it’s guilt or rage that gets us in the end, but I know from experience it’s shame.”

And it’s this theme of shame – and how that shame manifests itself in dangerous ways that carries the work to its Pulitzer-worthy conclusion. Sweat debuted in New York in the aftermath of the 2016 election and what must have have read as a raw, prescient portrait of the American working class then feels even more potent and dangerous a year and a half into the Trump administration. The frustrations and policies that led to our current moment are rendered in stark, heartbreaking relief – sending you home with a sickening sensation in your gut tempered only slightly by the hope of forgiveness. B+