After nearly a quarter-century as a playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage has finally made her Broadway debut by way of new drama “Sweat,” which opened at Studio 54 on March 26. Born out of two and a half years of research, “Sweat” takes place in Reading, PA in 2000 and 2008, centering on the lives of union factory workers who must grapple with the ill-effects of NAFTA on their job security and the communal and racial tensions that arise as a consequence.
Prior to arriving on the rialto, the play debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in early 2016, and most recently at the Public Theater at the end of last year. With each production, Nottage’s timely and insightful work received rave reviews, leading to her long overdue bow on Broadway.
Considering its previous acclaim, did critics once again sing the praises of “Sweat” in its new Broadway mounting?
Aside from the publications that opted to rerun their earlier reviews of the production at the Public, the responses written for the Broadway staging range from raves to middling. David Cote (Time Out New York) praises the “passionate and necessary drama,” which he characterizes as a “masterful depiction of the forces that divide and conquer us,” singling out director Kate Whoriskey’s “fluid and propulsive staging” and the “fearless triad” of women in the show: Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson and Alison Wright. Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune) similarly applauds the “intensely felt,” “moral, passionate, and richly articulated” play that “feels very much of the moment,” with particularly attention paid to the “relentless commitment and respect” of the ensemble.
Other reviews were more timid in their praise and more vocal in their criticism. Ben Brantley (New York Times) feels divided on the play, calling it a “bracingly topical portrait of American dreams deferred in working-class Pennsylvania,” claiming it “warrants serious applause” as “the first work from a major American playwright to summon, with empathy and without judgment, the nationwide anxiety that helped put Donald J. Trump in the White House.” Despite those kudos, though, Brantley finds Nottage’s text “often feels too conscientiously assembled,” turning characters into “social case studies.” Even harsher yet, Jesse Green (Vulture) deems “Sweat” “gripping but disappointing,” a play with a “checklist quality to the dramaturgy that begins to feel obligatory,” despite his appreciation for Nottage’s attempt to bring “more than just one racial or socioeconomic perspective to bear.”
Despite the divided response “Sweat” received for its Broadway staging, the show seems poised to perform well at the upcoming Tony Awards. No other new play this season will resonate with the current political climate. In addition, Nottage’s pedigree as a “justly acclaimed dramatist of ambitious scope and fierce focus,” to borrow Brantley’s words, and her conspicuous absence from the Broadway stage till now may be enough to convince the Tony nominating committee to vote for the timely show in Best Play.
Aside from the top honor, “Sweat” has the potential to pick up additional nominations. Nottage’s frequent collaborator Whoriskey could earn her first Tony nomination for bringing the time-jumping, ensemble show to life with such precision.
While difficult to single out a member of the cast, Tony-nominee Day (“Proof”) rightly earned the most honorable mentions from critics for her performance as the disillusioned, second-generation factory worker Tracey, and she has numerous stand-out moments and monologues that make her role worthy of consideration in Featured Actress.
Others of the eight ensemble members could land a nomination, too, such as standouts Wilson, TV star Wright (“The Americans,” “Feud: Bette and Joan”), Will Pullen, and Tony-nominee John Earl Jelks (“Radio Golf”).
Finally, John Lee Beatty’s impressively detailed turntable set deserves awards attention; he has an impressive track record at the Tony Awards with two wins (“The Nance,” “Talley’s Folly”) out of 15 nominations.
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