Martyna Majok

Cost of Living

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Cost of Living Summary

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Cost of Living (2016), a play by American dramatist Martyna Majok, follows unemployed Eddie as he cares for his quadriplegic wife, Annie, and Jess, a student in financial trouble who takes a job as a carer for John, a wealthy graduate student with cerebral palsy. After a premiere at the Williamstown Festival in 2016, Cost of Living played Off-Broadway in 2017, winning the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and two Lucille Lortel Awards, including Outstanding Play.

The play begins with unemployed former truck-driver Eddie talking to an unseen listener in a bar, explaining how he came to be here this evening. It’s complicated: His wife has recently died, but he has been receiving text messages from her phone (which he gave away). The last message invited him to a meeting here, now—but there is no one to meet him.

The next scene moves backward in time, introducing us to another set of characters altogether. Jess, a Princeton graduate and an immigrant from an unspecified country, has come to interview for a job as a personal care worker. There is a lot at stake for her. Since her mother returned to their home country to get urgent medical treatment, Jess has been living hand-to-mouth. She picks up shifts as a waitress in local dive bars, but she is on the brink of becoming homeless. She doesn’t have any qualifications for care work.

Her interviewer is John, a wealthy, handsome graduate student with cerebral palsy. He has decided to hire someone of his own choosing rather than find a qualified carer through an agency because he wants a less professional relationship with his carer. The work, he feels, is too intimate to permit a strictly structured employer-employee relationship: His carer will sponge bathe him and help him with personal functions. Both John and Jess feel vulnerable: He is the one who needs care, but to Jess, he is wealthy, privileged and entitled. As a result, the interview is initially prickly, but the two characters reach an understanding and Jess is hired.

Now we return to Eddie’s past. He arrives with his ex-wife, Ani, at her apartment. As they converse, we learn what has brought them together after their recent divorce. Ani has been in a car accident, which has left her quadriplegic. She needs significant at-home care, which Ani can hardly afford. Eddie has persuaded her to allow him to provide some of the care she needs—but it is clear that things are tense between them. Ani is suspicious that Eddie wants to resume their relationship, and there are suggestions that she is right.

This pattern repeats throughout the ensuing scenes: we witness one episode from Jess and John’s story, followed by one from Ani and Eddie’s. As Jess begins caring for John—shaving him and helping him shower each day—she comes to understand that beneath his entitlement, he is vulnerable and talented. She begins to feel a romantic affection for him, and she mistakes his willingness to show her his vulnerability for a romantic attraction to her.

Meanwhile, Eddie continues to long for Ani, and Ani continues to hold him at arm’s length. However, both characters are desperately lonely, and in the end, Ani succumbs to her need for physical connection and love. They make out, but as it becomes more passionate, Ani almost dies. Eddie is terrified and humiliated.

Jess learns that John has a hopeless crush on a schoolmate. She confesses her attraction to John, but John’s reaction makes it clear that he doesn’t really trust Jess: rather, he sees her as an employee, someone whose affection he has only bought. Hurt and humiliated, Jess runs out into the snow.

Back in the present, Eddie leaves the bar. As he heads home, he spots a girl—Jess—sleeping in her car, despite the fact that the night is well below freezing. He wakes her and invites her to come to his apartment, where he has a spare bed. She is initially suspicious, but Eddie’s kindness wins her round. As they talk, we learn that Jess has given up her apartment so she can send her pay to her family in her home country. Eddie offers to let Jess stay in his spare room at a low rent, so she can keep up her payments without risking her life. The play’s final note suggests that Jess—though suspicious of Eddie’s motives—will accept his offer.

Cost of Living explores the profound struggle of life at the bottom of America’s economic pile, especially when poverty is compounded by unaffordable healthcare. At the same time, it shines a light on the way relationships are transformed and complicated by disability. Described as “an honest, original work that invites audiences to examine diverse perceptions of privilege and human connection” by the Pulitzer judges, Cost of Living announces Majok’s arrival as a major American playwright.