Review: “Sweat” at the Mark Taper, a reflection of our deepest fears

L-R: Mary Mara, Michael O’Keefe (background), Amy Pietz and Portia in the Center Theatre Group production of “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum. Directed by Lisa Peterson and written by Lynn Nottage, “Sweat." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Obie award-winning Director Lisa Peterson and 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Playwright Lynn Nottage, pull us into a beer-soaked bar that serves as a refuge for a group of blue-collar workers in a small town with former glory, but a bleak future. SWEAT premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and it has been praised by critics ever since.

L-R: Will Hochman, Michael O’Keefe and Grantham Coleman in the Center Theatre Group production of “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum. Directed by Lisa Peterson and written by Lynn Nottage, “Sweat.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

At the beginning of the story, we are introduced to two young men who have been charged with a serious crime. The details of the crime and its victim are revealed gradually over a span of  8 years through a series of very effective, movie-like flashbacks. In the process, we get to meet the rest of the characters, mostly Union factory workers who stop at the local watering hole each day after work to unwind and gripe about their ever growing frustrations.

The two female leads,  Tracy and Cynthia (played brilliantly by Mary Mara and Portia), offer deeply moving performances showing how their longtime friendship is quickly pushed to its limits. Both women grew up in the same town, worked at the same factory for over twenty years, and expected to retire comfortably after so many years of loyalty to their company. However, a career advancement for one and growing concerns over job security for the rest in the time of NAFTA, spark off tensions that threaten to unravel precious friendships.

L-R: Michael O’Keefe and Peter Mendoza in the Center Theatre Group production of “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum. Directed by Lisa Peterson and written by Lynn Nottage, “Sweat.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Rumors begin to fly around town that their factory is considering layoffs and recruiting non-union Latino workers for a lot less money, destroying not only jobs, but also bringing all these people face to face with deep-seated racial tensions, and social and economic issues they never though they would have to confront.

Tracey and Cynthia’s sons are also best friends who work at the same imperilled factory.  As Jason (Will Hochman) and Chris (Grantham Coleman), too, see their dreams begin to crumble, the promising young men turn into ticking timebombs — a journey that is depicted impressively as they morph from playful buddies to hardened ex-convicts.

Actor, Michael O’Keefe plays Stan, the bartender, and he offers the one voice of reason in the midst of all the chaos. With countless credits to his name, O’Keefe (Homeland, Roseanne) gives one of the most solid performances of the show.  He not only looks after the emotional well being of his patrons, but also takes a young Latino boy named Oscar (a very sexy Peter Mendoza) under his wing to work at the bar. And then there’s Amy Pietz (Curb Your Enthusiasm, How To Get Away With Murder) who plays Jessie, the alcoholic friend with a heart of gold, offering much-needed comic relief while also battling with her own demons.

Sweat is an enduring play, more resonant now than ever before. Intense, but laced with just enough humor to keep us afloat, it’s a meditation on our times — our deepest fears and our most fragile hopes.

— Victor Riobo

SWEAT is playing at The Mark Taper Forum through October 7th. Get your tickets HERE.