Review: "Spent." Looks at What Happens When the Work You Bring Home is Life and Death

Spent.

Written and directed by Mikaela Berry

Presented by FRIGID New York at The Kraine Theater

85 E 4th St., Manhattan, NYC

June 18 and June 20, 2023

Image courtesy of Emily Owens PR
Another Pride Month means that it's time for another installment of the annual Queerly Festival, presented by FRIGID New York at the Kraine Theater and UNDER St. Marks from June 15th through July 3rd. The 2023 edition of the festival, founded in 2014, features a full slate of plays, storytelling, comedy, drag, and more (visit FRIGID New York for the full schedule). Among them is Spent., a compelling indictment of worker exploitation in the harm reduction sector specifically and the "helping" professions more broadly. Written and directed by Mikaela Berry based on her own experiences working at a particular harm reduction center in New York City, Spent. unsparingly highlights the abuses facilitated by workers' good intentions and asks where the line is past which helping others begins to harm oneself.

The harm reduction center where Drew (Mayah "My" Lourdes Burke) works with exhausting devotion is underfunded, understaffed, and understocked, and doesn't even have a functioning air conditioner in the sweltering heat despite requests to director Kaitlin (Allie Donnelly). The overwhelming nature of Drew and coworker Luisa's (Cristina Obando Sanchez) days there are cleverly communicated through recurring instances of the sounds of a press of unseen people and the women's harried responses. Quickly, Luisa is facing her first overdose, something that Drew has dealt with enough times to lose count. As Drew worries about the effect on Luisa, Drew herself seems to be coping by spending her evenings drinking straight from the bottle, and the strain on her relationship with Vi (Trasonia Abbott) is beginning to show. Meanwhile, Kaitlin (who is white while the employees whom we see are, notably, both women of color), behaves a bit like an absentee landlord, popping in and out of the center on occasion and worrying more about whether a mop was left out and whether her employee is using what she considers the proper tone in speaking to her than about ensuring her employees' well-being and ability to do their job effectively. Even so, Drew still has a hard time admitting that Kaitlin isn't who she thought she was; but the arrival at the center of an unhoused young trans man named Elias (Nikaio Bulan Sahar Thomashow) brings more than one simmering conflict to a head.

Spent. offers a powerful critique of not only exploitative individuals but also a system in which we treat addiction and poverty as crimes or problems to be solved by charity that will never be sufficient and in which we expect, for example, underpaid teachers to spend their own salary to buy school supplies and sometimes food or clothing for their students. The play ends on an ambivalent juxtaposition, with a significant smile from Elias counterbalanced by a brief but strikingly (if not stressfully) composed final scene that pointedly denies closure both to Drew and to the audience. The cast brings a vibrant and engrossing specificity to their characters, from Donnelly's passive-aggressive cheerfulness as Kaitlin to Thomashow's affectingly expressive, largely silent performance as Elias. Burke and Abbott ensure that we sympathize with both Drew and Vi as they clash over the consequences of Drew's work life, and Sanchez's Luisa presents an admirable balance of compassion and self-assertion. After the performance, we overheard an audience member say that they could have watched another hour of Spent., and we couldn't agree more.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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