July 02--Williamstown, Mass.
The single set for the world premiere of "American Hero," running through July 7 on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is exceptional because it looks so instantly familiar. Designer Timothy R. Mackabee has created a chain sub shop, down the aluminum-framed windows and door, self-serve soda fountain, primary-colored display menus and glassed in fridge/counter from which the employees -- or, rather, "sandwich artists" -- retrieve ingredients to make customers' orders in no more than 20 seconds.
The comedy by Bess Wohl, whose play "Touch(ed)" was a WTF hit two summer ago, feels very much of today, and its contemporary concerns give it immediate resonance. The employees are a middle-aged man reduced to toiling in fast food after losing his job at a multinational bank, a single mom in her early 30s and a teenager who works at the sub location and a chain taco eatery, often sleeping in her car, because her father has health issues and inadequate medical coverage. The franchisee is an Egyptian immigrant and former doctor whose halting English is exacerbated by his utter inexperience in a food-service operation where every procedure and quantity is dictated by the corporate manual. (To wit: "Bacon must never be cut in half or broken.")
Wohl has a light touch with the comedy. She trusts her actors and the audience to find humor in the discomfort, awkwardness and effortful joviality of a new group of colleagues forced to get to know one another over long hours at a job none of them wants.
"I make a kick-ass tuna salad," says Sheri, a mousy, awkward, 17-year-old blonde played by the perfectly cast Erin Wilhelmi.
"You do?" asks a colleague.
She replies earnestly, in a moment characteristic of the deadpan humor director Leigh Silverman finds throughout, "It's my biggest skill."
The play falters after the shop's owner disappears, suppliers stop delivering product, and the employees keep the store open by buying ingredients with money from the register and making simple, cheap sandwiches -- peanut butter and jelly, turkey, plain butter -- for customers including stoner frat boys who live down the street.
A brightly printed "Grand Opening" sign across the front of the counter gets replaced with a hand-lettered message on cardboard: "We have been abandoned by corporate." That would have been message enough, especially if Wohl had kept the comedy going with more humor derived from the humdrum business about of a daily routine that increasingly becomes an existential crisis -- at least for the audience, if not the characters.
Instead, Wohl turns serious, giving each of her characters the equivalent of an aria of lament. The short-skirted sexpot single mom develops a sob in her voice as she talks about an upcoming custody hearing and being unable to afford a toy one of her kids wants for an upcoming birthday; the former banker of 20 years feels inadequate as a father and provider because he's now making less than $10 an hour; and the teen has a dream in which she's visited by a suave man dressed as a sub, complete with a bib of prime rib slices that looks like a ruffled tux shirt. After a man from the chain's corporate office shows up, matters become even more dire, with the action turning to melodrama, as if the playwright didn't know how to otherwise resolve matters.
The actors are uniformly good throughout, especially Wilhelmi as the teen, Omar Metwally in multiple roles and and Ari Graynor as the single mom. Graynor shows us the vulnerability beneath a woman who's found sexual confidence to be her most appealing attribute, and she gives some of the sparkiest line deliveries, as when she shouts, "Happy grand opening, bitches! Let's make some (expletive) sandwiches." James Waterston is pleasingly out of place as the former banker, yet he evolves, too, into a guy who can, in a slow stretch during their abandonment, put on sunglasses, tilt his visor and play guitar while the women sing.
Many of the attributes of the production are precisely worked out, including a comic soundtrack of pan-flute and guitar versions of pop hits such as "The Greatest Love of All," "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" and Lionel Richie's "Hello." Further, Wohl's dialogue can be lively and engaging. When the banker tells young Sheri, "You're one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life," she says glumly, "Then there's something wrong with your life."
But such ease and deftness suffer from the author's need to have Important Things stated explicitly. A rewrite with more humor and less message would give the play broader appeal and greater longevity.
email@example.com, 518-454-5489, @Tablehopping -- http://facebook.com/SteveBarnesFoodCritic
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