In The New Group’s production of Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, the latest Off-Broadway premiere from playwright Will Arbery (a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his award-winning Heroes of the Fourth Turning), the ostensible subject of the dark absurdist comedy, now playing at Pershing Square Signature Theatre, is the human impact of climate change. But it’s more universally about the psychological and emotional climate of existential dread that manifests itself with the fear of change. Directed by Danya Taymor (who also directed Heroes of the Fourth Turning) with an eye on Arbery’s surreal humor, the show interweaves segments of laugh-out-loud ridiculousness with sudden inexplicable shocks of eerie dark energy as it delves into the minds of the anxiety-ridden characters, in a challenging work loaded with meaningful absurdity.
Set in the titular Illinois suburb in three consecutive Januarys from 2014-16 (and maybe more), the four-hander revolves around municipal salt truck drivers Peter and Basil, their boss Maiworm, and her daughter Jane Jr. It’s a time when winter temperatures, ice, and snow continue to worsen and a newly developing green technology, embraced by Maiworm to replace the environmentally hazardous and less effectual salting of the roadways, threatens to eliminate their public service jobs. Added to that are the friends’ quirky personalities and interrelationships, suicidal thoughts and haunting dreams, and reliance on the f-bombs, hahas, and okays they repeatedly spout to avoid articulating their intense and complex feelings, as the audience is left to decide for themselves exactly what it’s all about, whether they can rely on each other for the love and support they so desperately need, if anything will ever really change, or if they’ll be metaphorically swallowed up by the underlying tensions of life and the planet.
An outstanding cast delivers the demanding material in perfectly timed masterful performances that are at once funny, poignant, and unsettling. Jeb Kreager and Ken Leung take the lead as the co-workers Peter, who can’t shake his severe depression, is unhappy with his wife and daughter, and is angry to hear that a news reporter on the rising costs of salt committed suicide before he could, so his own won’t be anything new; and Basil, who writes weird short stories that he reads to him, tries to cheer him up in a wacky new way that no one’s ever done before, and has visions of an ominous lady in a purple hat that his grandmother in his native Greece warned him to avoid. But they mostly converse in truncated phrases in the salt dome break room, drive together on the truck, and repeat the same cycle with minor variation year after year after year, until something very strange happens – or does it?
Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s Maiworm, who shares a secret connection with Basil, is more upbeat and optimistic about her job, her excitement about the press coverage she’s received, the better solutions she’s endorsing to deal with the snow and ice, and her favorite author Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which she encourages all of the others to read. As her adult daughter Jane Jr., Rachel Sachnoff is lonely, depressed, and possibly also suicidal, unable to decide if she should throw a party for her mother’s birthday (convincing herself that either way would be a disaster) and dreaming of dating a famous singer she doesn’t know and has no way of meeting (but nonetheless teaches herself the singer’s dance, in a hilarious parody of neo-Expressionist movement that numbers among the funniest scenes in the show). Through it all, we’re not sure if what we’re watching is real, or if we’re getting glimpses of hallucinations in the characters’ deeply disturbed psyches.
The production’s evocative artistic design triggers the dramatic shifts from the everyday reality of the break room, the truck, Maiworm’s home, the door to outside (bi-level set by Matt Saunders), and the workaday costumes (by Sarafina Bush) the characters wear, to the paranormal apparitions and overwhelming dread they experience, with instantaneous and disorienting breaks in lighting (by Isabella Byrd) and sound (by Mikaal Sulaiman). Credit is also due to the expert voice and text coaching (by Gigi Buffington) and movement coordination (by Tilly Evans-Krueger), in a formidable show that examines perceptions and delves into the spheres of the absurd and surreal. If you’re up for a work that makes you laugh, recoil, and think, be sure to catch the latest from Arbery, Taymor, and The New Group’s impressive cast and team.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
Evanston Salt Costs Climbing plays through Sunday, December 18, 2022, at The New Group, performing at Pershing Square Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $75, plus fees), call (917) 935-4242, or go online. Everyone must wear a mask inside.