WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.
INFO $59-$149; 212-239-6200; sweatbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Far-reaching yet intimate story of a factory town
For a brief moment before the November election, the news was filled with stories about disenfranchised blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt. At the same time, smack in the eye of the news cycle, “Sweat” — Lynn Nottage’s drama about lives destroyed when factories moved to Mexico from Reading, Pennsylvania — had a justly celebrated Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater.
Although the cameras soon moved on to sexier topics, the drama, now on Broadway, is just as meaningful, just as powerful, equally far-reaching and intimate.
To theatergoers who know Nottage from her masterly, inventive Pulitzer-winning “Ruined,” the straightforward naturalism of “Sweat” may be a surprise. But like “Ruined,” created from real stories of women’s sexual abuse in the Congo Civil War (and, criminally, never moved to Broadway), the new play grew from extended research in Reading by Nottage and her longtime director, Kate Whoriskey.
In a way, this feels like a throwback to Depression-era drama. The depression, however, is ours. The urgency, the deep specifics of the characters make the conventional structure an essential, almost radical part of the storytelling. The relationships are so multilayered, the economic and cruel racial realities so clear that fancier stagecraft might just get in the way.
Nottage wants us to get to know some people who, from 2000 to 2008, lost jobs, had their unions busted and saw generations of a way of life vanish along with their futures. “What the --- is NAFTA?,” asks one of the three factory friends — played by Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson and, new to the terrific company, Alison Wright.
At the center, but hardly alone there, are these three buddies who have worked decades on their feet at the steel-tubing factory. Relief comes at the bar where everybody knows more than their names — designed by John Lee Beatty with a turntable that contrasts the bar’s vibrancy with the dark reality outside.
Projected dates mark how quickly things went downhill in 2000. The shockers are the scenes that, every so often, flash forward to show the characters’ drastic transformation, especially the decline of one of the husbands (John Earl Jelks, heart-rending).
The story begins at the end in 2008, when two of the women’s grown sons — marvelously played by Khris Davis and Will Pullen — are released from prison. Twisting in the economic tangles are racial ramifications. Was the black woman picked as supervisor to deliver all the bad news? When the Latino busboy (Carlo Alban) becomes a scab, can we mourn a union that had shut him out? We are meant to sweat all that, too.