November 3, 2016

In Lynn Nottage’s scorching play “Sweat,” the bonds among a group of working-class friends and family are frayed to the breaking point by the pressure of an eroding economic future. Keenly observed and often surprisingly funny — but ultimately heartbreaking — the work traces the roots of a tragedy with both forensic psychological detail and embracing compassion. Ms. Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Ruined,” is writing at the peak of her powers, and the superb cast and the director, Kate Whoriskey, rise to the occasion. With the decline of manufacturing jobs in the rust belt having become a significant issue in this turbulent election year, the arrival of the play in New York, where it opened on Thursday at the Public Theater after originating at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, could hardly be more timely. But the issues it explores have been making headlines for years. Much of the play takes place in 2000, with a prologue and other scenes that are set eight years later. In the prologue, we meet two men, still young, in encounters with their parole officer. One is the truculent, uncooperative Jason (Will Pullen), who’s white and doesn’t seem interested in resuming a fruitful life; the other, the black Chris (Khris Davis), is doing his best to get back on track. Both Jason and Chris, we gather, were convicted of the same crime, although its details remain unmentioned, stoking suspense.