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Johanna Day as Tracey and Michelle Wilson as Cynthia
photos by Joan Marcus.

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† By Marc Miller

If, like 65 million other Americans, you woke up last November 9 bewildered, aghast, and wondering how, how could this have happened, you are urged to make your way to Studio 54, where Lynn Nottageís Sweat provides some answers and much to chew on besides. Her Rust Belt elegy, while set in 2000 and 2008, is up-to-the-minute in its clear-eyed view of the destructive side of free markets and the damage capitalism can do to average Americansí lives. These people are desperate, and the systemís failing them in ways that will spur them to gamble on any alternative, even a vulgar one with orange hair. Sweat, directed with the utmost care by Kate Whoriskey and acted by the finest ensemble youíre likely to see this season, may not make you like these optionless victims any better, but it will help you understand them.

Nottage and Whoriskey both researched Sweat by interviewing displaced factory workers around Reading, Pa., where itís set, and these people really got into their bones. You can hear it in the natural give-and-take of a bunch of bar buddies at the dive, flawlessly rendered by John Lee Beatty, near the plant where they work. Whole families have worked for generations at that plant, and the life it offers is boring and back-breaking, but steady. The payís modest, but you earn enough to buy a round from Stan (James Colby), the former factory worker whose on-the-job injury years ago turned him into a bartender. Gruff but fair, and assisted by barback Oscar (Carlo Alban), he understands this crew and their workplace concerns, which are deepening. NAFTAís bringing change, along with rumors of reorganization and layoffs, and the unionís power is limited.

Thatís a problem for quick-reacting, confrontational Tracey (Johanna Day), for whom the plant is a family affair: Her late husband worked there, and her similarly excitable son Jason (Will Pullen) still does. Ditto for her more stable pal Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), whose son Chris (Khris Davis) is on the factory floor, though contemplating college and a teaching career, while her estranged husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks) is struggling on the picket line at another factory, when heís not bumming drinks or sneaking off to do drugs. Meanwhile, their colleague Jessie (Alison Wright), who gave up dreams of a hippie-nomad existence decades ago in exchange for job security, drinks herself into a stupor every night but always shows up on time for work the next morning.

They may not sound like fascinating characters, but how real they are, and what exquisite detail Nottage has invested in them. The small talkís true and funny, and the relationships develop in ways that surprise us even as they make immense sense. Take race: Stacey is white and Cynthia is black, but thatís not an issue, until Cynthia is promoted into a supervisory job. Itís the sort of environment where someone like Stacey is bound to start a sentence with ďIím not prejudiced, butÖĒ and end it with evidence to the contrary. Chris and Jason are the best of friends, easy with each other as they gab of sports and women and motorcycles, but their friendshipís about to be tested in ways they never could have imagined. And while white-black racial dynamics generally arenít a problem, Oscar is. Born locally to Colombian parents, heíd like a factory job, and the workers see him as an interloper and economic threat. The conflict leads to a violent climax you may have seen coming, but that makes it no less shocking when it happens.

Will Pullen as Jason, James Colby as Stan and Khris Davis as Chris in Sweat.

Until it does, youíre left guessing about what happened in 2000 to provoke the 2008 sequences. Whatever it was, it was cataclysmic: Once-close friends arenít talking, two characters are ex-cons (a sturdy Lance Coadie Williams is their parole officer), virtually everybodyís life is worse, and the jobs all went to Mexico. Meanwhile, a video montage reminds us, Wall Streetís about to get a bailout. (Every Goldman Sachs partner should be given a ticket to this play.) Nottage sets up a tense final confrontation among three characters where you wonder, what can they possibly say to one another after whatís gone down, yet manages to ring down, convincingly, on unexpected notes of kindness and hopefulness.

Just look up and down the cast list for names worthy of special praise. But letís single out Day, who captures both Staceyís hair-trigger temper and the steadfast loyalty she feels for her friends, even as itís slowly being eaten away; Colby, with an appealing regular-guyness that wants to minimize the conflicts rising up in the ranks; and Wilson, whose Cynthia is heart-rending. As a brave, resourceful woman caught up in a vise, where any effort to stick up for her old colleagues will be seen by management as treachery, she hits notes that have become more resonant since Sweat premiered at the Public last fall. With a casting change or two, itís pretty much the same production, with Jennifer Moellerís spot-on costumes and Peter Kaczorowskiís clever lighting (love the headlights reflecting across the front of the bar); any fears that a move to Studio 54 would kill the intimacy are unfounded, though youíd be advised to avoid the rear of the house if you want to hear every word. And you do.

Itís an old-fashioned great American play, one that zeros in on a single community to make larger statements about who we are, what this country values, and the price it pays for it. And weíre left to contemplate the destructiveness of market forces in countless other towns across the heartland, looking much as this one does at the end: Livelihoods were snatched away, friendships and families torn apart, addictions made worse, promising young lives ruined. But hey, the stockholders were happy.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.

Sweat. At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Tickets at, or Telecharge, 212-239-6200.