Click here for updates on the evolving COVID-19 situation at Rice
Rice University’s Student Newspaper — Since 1916

Saturday, October 16, 2021 — Houston, TX °

Review: Alley Theatre’s ‘Sweat’ fails to provide emotional crater it promises

Photo courtesy Lynn Lane

By Imogen Brown     10/13/21 1:10am

Review: ★★★

It’s Sept. 29, 2008. In the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, two men occupy a claustrophobic square of harsh white light — one marked by a black eye and white supremacist face tattoo, the other bearing the pen and notepad of a parole officer. The scene is static, the performances tense. This is Lynn Nottage’s prize-winning play “Sweat,” performed at the Alley Theatre in Houston. 

A jarring nature documentary narrative voice takes us back eight years. Three middle-aged women enter a transformed, warmly lit stage. Laughing, dancing and begging for one more round from the grizzled, good natured bartender, Tracey, Cynthia and Jessie reluctantly conclude the remains of a birthday party. They have worked at a nearby steel mill called Olsteads since graduating high school. Their raucous gossip and tangible history as childhood friends epitomize the heart of “Sweat,” carrying it through its broader political and economic themes. Against the backdrop of this intimate bar (and looming factory-esque rods in the distance), these women and their sons, Chris and Jason, monologue, reminisce, banter and fight around the spectre of an all-too-familiar American Dream. 

After a slow moving introduction, the plot commences when Cynthia, who is Black, gets promoted over her white counterparts. Racial tensions abound as Tracey deviates from the sharp, fun and flirtatious character she is at the play’s beginning, to bitter, tired and obnoxious as her jealousy and prejudice develop over Cynthia’s success. Elizabeth Bunch smooths out Tracey’s abrupt shift by acting her part with a natural vitality and convincing energy, allowing enough of her personality to shine without overwhelming other relevant stories. She and Michelle Elaine, the actress portraying Cynthia, have a lively chemistry comparable only to that of Elaine and Shawn Hamilton, the actor portraying Brucie, Cynthia’s ex-husband. 

“Sweat” covers themes of voter disillusionment, racial alienation and the American family in the workplace. Through its parallel narratives, “Sweat” demonstrates the different ways in which each of its characters interacts with the American Dream; some are imprisoned for their pursuits, while others move up the economic chain to realize their dreams of leadership and steady employment.  At the time of its release in 2017, “Sweat” very clearly commented on the political cynicism surrounding the onset of the Trump era. Stan, the bartender’s, defeated proclamation: “I’m not voting, ‘cause whichever lever I pull it’ll only lead to disappointment” is emblematic of this civic distrust.  

Though full of redeemingly dynamic moments, “Sweat”’s rhythm leaves a lot to be desired. Through direction, production and writing, Nottage and these actors often try to make their characters three dimensional without quite getting there. From angry to fiercely happy to nostalgic, each scene is formulaic in it’s rant-to-reminisce prescription. The stifling monotony of the bar setting, the repetitive motif of birthdays and the transitory narrative voice all fall short of their theatrical intentions, until they are borderline contrived in their sameness. Characters stand, sit, gesture and monologue like hamsters in a wheel. 

It wasn’t until the violent, concluding culmination of underlying racial and personal tensions, that I felt truly engaged by the story. When Cynthia takes center stage in an attempt to appeal to her lifelong friends who still work on the factory floor, the agitation is palpable. Until then, the out of place sense of mystery, overdone ambient music and self satisfied stage transitions stating the weather and Dow Jones as metrics by which to measure the passage of time utterly disrupt the play’s attempt to seriously comment on the dangers of white, working class dissatisfaction. Though “Sweat” offers valuable insights into contemporary racial and economic dynamics, much of its direction, pacing and auditory elements remain fragmented in their attempts to conceive a coherent whole.  

More from The Rice Thresher

A&E 10/13/21 1:28am
Review: ‘What If…?’ is a worthy watch for Marvel fans

At the heart of Marvel’s “What If…?” is, unsurprisingly, the question: “what if?” The series, which is the first animated entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is based on a popular comic book series of the same name. “What If...?” opts for a similar anthology format, with semi-standalone plots in each episode that eventually converge toward one storyline in the finale. Unlike the comic series, which has the expansive Marvel Comics’s canon at its disposal, the show opts for a smaller scope with only characters that have already appeared in the MCU. These creative guardrails on “What If...?” are the central problem of the show’s first season, which has flashes of immense storytelling potential amidst a more inconsistent affair. 

A&E 10/13/21 1:15am
Haunted houses that call H-Town home

October is here, and with Halloween right around the corner, many of the more brave owls will find themselves looking for a frightful time beyond the hedges. With that, the Thresher delivers, with some of our favorite haunts around Houston. Most of these are not for the faint of heart, but we did include some family friendly ones so your friend who was too scared to watch “Squid Games” can tag along. Go visit, if you dare, and scare away your semester sorrows in fun costumes and screams galore. 

A&E 10/13/21 1:13am
Review: ‘No Time to Die’ thrills audience with James Bond’s latest adventure

When “No Time to Die” first was delayed due to COVID-19 in April 2020, many felt that this film was doomed. With great controversy surrounding the script, casting and even Daniel Craig himself stating that would only play Bond for the money, the consensus was that Craig’s final outing as 007 would be mediocre at best and disastrous at worst. Now releasing nearly 18 months after its anticipated release date, I can safely say that “No Time to Die” is one of the best films of the franchise.


Please note All comments are eligible for publication by The Rice Thresher.