NEW YORK — In “Sweat,” playwright Lynn Nottage bottles a flammable brand of white working-class resentment and spills it, in its superheated state, all over the stage of Broadway’s Studio 54.
Audiences will readily recognize the vitriol unleashed in Nottage’s timely if too plodding drama, which had its official opening Sunday night: It’s the same streak of embittered disenfranchisement in the nation’s faltering industrial belt that Donald Trump exploited to his advantage. Set in the economically stressed environs of Reading, Pa., in 2000 (and 2008), the play makes a case study out of the decline of a steel bearings plant, revealing how lives are disrupted, and ethnic and racial hatreds are stoked in the wake of a factory owner’s decision to shut down the plant and ship manufacturing jobs to another country.
You have to credit Nottage for prescience: She was researching her play — which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and later made stops at Arena Stage in Washington and off-Broadway’s Public Theater — well before the election results identified a magnitude of disaffection caused by economic stagnation that many observers in the media and politics underestimated. That boiling sense of grievance is embodied most pointedly by Johanna Day’s Tracey, a white factory worker whose family goes back generations in the plant. Looking for scapegoats after union members are locked out, volatile Tracey turns sullenly on her recently promoted black best friend Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), and then more malevolently on Oscar (Carlo Alban), a young Latino man recruited by the company to replace the locked-out employees.
Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Ruined,” her play cataloging the barbaric acts committed against women during an African civil war, is once again exploring a community convulsed to the breaking point by forces out of its control. Although the drama is essentially the reconstruction of events leading up to a brutal encounter in a Reading bar that lands a pair of young factory workers (portrayed by Will Pullen and Khris Davis) in prison, its best moments anatomize the friendship among three women in the plant: Tracey, Cynthia and their barfly work pal Jessie (the terrific Alison Wright). How their camaraderie disintegrates is a far more nuanced bit of storytelling than the standard-issue crime-procedural track that “Sweat” ultimately shifts onto.
Day is the single holdover from the cast in the Arena production, which also retains both its original director, Kate Whoriskey, and design team, for Broadway. The actress brings a bombastic flair to blue-collar Tracey that makes believable her spite-driven, alcohol-fueled egging on of the attack in the bar. The other actors are all fine, although the same could be said for the Arena ensemble. Of “Sweat,” the very best that can be said is that it nobly alerts theatergoers to the plight of hard-pressed Americans — who might be unable to afford tickets to the play themselves.
Sweat, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; projections, Jeff Sugg; production stage manager, Donald Fried; fight direction, U. Jonathan Toppo. With Lance Coadie Williams, John Earl Jelks, James Colby. About two hours, 20 minutes. Tickets, $59-$199. At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.