Theatre review: Cost of Living, Queensland Theatre

'Cost of Living' is a play for our times about the price we all pay to be human. 
A woman is lying in a bathtub covered in bubbles. A man in a blue checkered shirt and t shirt sits nearby her and looks down at her.

Given the state of our current political world, one might be forgiven for thinking that the title of this work, Cost of Living, relates to the daily struggle of many to make ends meet financially. However, this Australian premiere of Polish-American playwright Martyna Majok’s drama (which had its world premiere in Boston in 2016 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018) has a different premise. ‘Cost’ here means the price we have to pay for just being able to live each day. It examines in both broad and specific brushstrokes the human condition, the complexities of who we are and how we co-exist and look after each other.  

Predominantly, the play casts light on the problems faced by those suffering from physical disabilities but it also turns the tables by examining the interdependency of the people who care for them. Majok creates thoughtful characters with different needs and hopes but underpins these with a wide range of emotions such as understanding, love, dignity and vulnerability. Deeply human, these characters are flawed yet eminently recognisable.   

The play is set mainly in New Jersey and concerns two sets of unrelated characters, all of whom are at a crossroads in their lives.

Eddie (Philip Quast) is a former truck driver who is out of work, while his estranged wife Ani (Kate Hood) is now a quadriplegic following a recent road accident. John (Dan Daw) is an affluent PhD candidate at Princeton University who has cerebral palsy. He needs practical help and engages Jess (Zoe de Plevitz) as his carer to look after his daily needs. She is also a Princeton graduate but of a poor immigrant background, doing several menial jobs to survive financially.

John and Ani live with their respective congenital and acquired disabilities and are appropriately played by actors with disabilities, making this a rare occurrence. Queensland Theatre proudly states that this is the first Australian-staged play to have a 50/50 ratio of disabled/non-disabled actors on stage.     

The opening is a monologue set in the present, in which we meet Eddie in a bar in Williamsburg as he waits for someone who never arrives. Full of bluster and bonhomie, underneath Eddie is lonely and in need of company following the recent death of his wife. Told in a series of flashbacks, the play then moves into a series of alternating scenes between the two separate couples in which we see that the offering and receiving of help and care is in equal parts humbling, disturbing, awkward and empowering.  

Co-directors Priscilla Jackman and Dan Daw direct with great sensitivity and a strong attention to detail, bringing out the various shades of dark and lightness in the text. Each character has his or her distinct story that is well managed without over-explanation. Some things, such as the shower scene between John and Jess, and the following bath scene between Eddie and Ani where Ani almost drowns, are particularly moving and you almost want to look away as they seem so personal and raw. 

Surprisingly perhaps there is much humour and laughter in the play, where the angst and brittle responses of both Ani and Jess are at times matched by underlying amusing asides by the articulate John and Eddie. In their first scene together, Jess states awkwardly that that she doesn’t know how to relate to John being ‘differently abled’ to which he retorts her remark is ‘f**king retarded’, creating a ripple of audience laughter. Eddie makes many gaffes with Ani that are equally funny. The final scene is beautifully realised and, without being a spoiler, brings the story to a particularly engaging and heart-warming if ultra-neat ending.       

A fairly simple set of moving walled panels to denote various rooms and street scenes, including some mobile rostra and a cleverly-designed tiled floor to contain a functional shower, is realistically designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell. His costuming of the characters is also spot-on. John Rayment’s expert lighting helps to accentuate and define the many settings, including an evocative night-time snow scene. Guy Webster creates a marvellous blend of classical music extracts alongside a soundscape of lively electronic music for the scene changes. 

Dan Daw gives a remarkable and deeply engaging performance as John, his ultra-witty dialogue matched by a proud dignity and an underlying and fragile vulnerability. He is first-rate. As Ani, Kate Hood starts by being a tough, sharp-tongued New Jerseyan, angry about her accident and highly critical of her husband. However, growing to be more accepting and tender, she embraces a potentially new relationship with Eddie. Hood gives a well-observed and finely nuanced performance. 

Zoe de Plevitz’s Jess is a complex and closed character, at first bitter and brittle and defensive in her dealings with John. She proves to be a survivor though and Plevitz offers a finely crafted portrait of pride and fear, her vulnerability very much to the fore. Philip Quast portrays Eddie with a joyous heart-on-his-sleeve sensibility, his loud, boisterous persona offering a streetwise philosophy of life that is as charming as it is believable. A wonderful layered interpretation from one of Australia’s foremost actors.     

Read: Theatre review: King Lear, Neilson Nutshell, Pier 2/3

As the daughter of immigrant Polish parents, Majok’s story is similar to many in Australia; we see evidence of that in the character of Jess. The play could easily have been transposed down under and may have felt more relevant for us than being performed with American accents in this production.

Nevertheless, this is a thoughtful and beautifully delivered play that exudes much pathos and love for its characters. It also poses many questions about the value we place on life and the compassion that is shown to others. Such universal themes are the stuff of many literary works, but what makes Majok’s play special is the intimate and moving scenes she creates that so beautifully portray the dilemmas of her characters. 

Cost of Living by Martyna Majok
Presented by Queensland Theatre, co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company

Bille Brown Theatre, South Brisbane
Co-Directors: Priscilla Jackman and Dan Daw 
Set and Costume Designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell 
Lighting Designer: John Rayment 
Composer and Sound Designer: Guy Webster 
Dialect Coach: Gabrielle Rogers 
Movement and Intimacy Coach: NJ Price 

Cast: Dan Daw, Zoe de Plevitz, Kate Hood, Philip Quast

Cost of Living will be performed at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane until 13 July before transferring to Sydney’s Wharf Theatre from 18 July to 18 August 2024.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals. Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.