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Nearly Theatre: not quite a review of the Huntington’s ‘Sweat’

Last Friday I had the privilege of seeing the final dress rehearsal of the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Sweat” by playwright Lynn Nottage. I must preface this by admitting that the show wasn’t finished when I saw it; this was a rehearsal, after all. As theatre asks the audience to suspend its disbelief, however, I will kindly request you do the same for the article and pretend this isn’t slightly poor practice, with this piece functioning somewhere between a preview and a review. 

Lynn Nottage began conceptualizing “Sweat” when she conducted a series of interviews in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011. Reading acts as a stand-in for any small, poverty-ridden, American town. The play centers around a group of childhood friends and their sons, all co-workers at a factory that’s slowly being shut down. “Sweat” touches on such topics as racial tension, immigration, the opioid epidemic, neo-Nazis, American manufacturing and toxic masculinity. It’s aggressively timely. The script, which won a Pulitzer and was nominated for the Tony for Best Play, handles these issues with tact and care. “Sweat” oscillates between 2000 and 2008 to give the audience a bird’s eye view of how the town, and its residents’ lives, evolved over the decade.

“Sweat” brought the same level of high-production quality one should expect from The Huntington. The scenery looked like a real bar—functioning beer taps included. The actors all brought their characters to life with grace, helping us empathize with people we might not want to accept. The fight choreography was mostly—at points even shockingly—realistic (more on that later). Make no mistake; this was objectively well-assembled theatre. For those of you not versed in the Boston theatre scene, The Huntington is one of our two major regional theatres (along with the American Repertory Theater), and it has sent numerous shows to Broadway over the years. Frankly, I expect a little more than “professional” from one of the most prestigious companies in Boston. It’s a good director’s job to fill the white space on the page, and Nottage’s white space was left disappointingly blank.

It felt like the director and production team read the script, and then just put it on stage. They gave the lines to the actors, the locations to the set designer—Brandeis’s very own Professor Cameron Anderson (THA), who is capable of and known for drastically more ambitious and interesting designs—and they plopped it all on stage. It never felt like the director was crafting her own vision, merely assembling something that already existed.

The cast was universally solid. Standout performances included Tyla Abercrumbie as Cynthia, the character who faces racist attacks from the town’s people and her closest friends when she, a black woman, is promoted at the factory. Brandon G. Green—who happens to have taught Suzuki for Brandeis’s theatre department for several years—demonstrated an impressive range, portraying Chris, Cynthia’s son, at both 18 and 26 years old.

I wasn’t unhappy to see “Sweat,” but it dragged through its two and a half hour run. Sure, the show will certainly be tighter when it opens, but the scene transitions were long. Nothing was broken, but we weren’t watching a well-oiled machine, and that’s totally reasonable considering this was only the final dress rehearsal. There will be a whole week of previews before “Sweat” officially opens this weekend.

The show’s climax is a long, multi-character fight scene. I’m always wary of violence on stage, not due to any squeamishness, but simply because it becomes exponentially difficult to suspend your disbelief. From the very beginning of the scene, the audience knows it’s going to turn violent, so there’s no way to deny that you’re watching the precise merging of yelling, dancing and blood-packet popping. When the fight began, the first several moves were shockingly convincing, but the fight was just so long that once the initial wincing wore off, we were all left to watch probably five more minutes of pretend violence. A fight scene should never go on long enough that one’s thoughts start to wander, as mine did.

Despite a general lack of positive things to say about the Huntington’s “Sweat,” I’ll admit that I enjoyed it, and I think most people who see it will love it. Despite my being an affluent, white, theatre fan, I’m not actually the primary intended audience. Season subscribers to the Huntington are the intended audience. And Huntington subscribers differ from me in some key areas: age and snobbery levels. Whether or not this is an uninspired (lazy) piece of theatre, it is an undeniably solid production of a well-written show. Though it breaks little new ground with its bold proclamation of “racism=bad,” it does take an audience of east-coast elites, like you and me, out of our cozy bubble, and if you’re not hoping for innovational leaps in theatricality, then you might enjoy spending an evening thinking about working-class Pennsylvanians instead of the Iowa caucuses.

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