Fast food, even with artisan bread, is a dead-end job for most people.
Low hourly pay, part-time hours to exempt the “sandwich artists” from getting any benefits and brutal expectations—ever try to make and wrap a sandwich in under 20 seconds?—what a way to make a living, or more accurately, non-living.
Playwright Bess Wohl takes the McJob to absurd and often poignant heights in American Hero, a play about three workers in a toasted sub franchise, has opened shop at Rep Stage through November.
A new Tasty Torpedoes store opens up in the nether corner of a mall. It’s 2008 and the country is still reeling in recession. Optimistically, Bob (Gary-Kayi Fletcher, skillfully shapeshifting into a series of characters) purchases this franchise, for reasons that become increasingly mysterious as time goes on.
Reading robotically from the franchise manual, he interviews and trains three workers—Sheri (a sneakily smart Liliana Evans), a bright-eyed but exhausted 18-year-old with a second job at a taco joint to pay her father’s medical bills; Jamie (a brittle and bruising Megan Anderson), a sarcastic, hard-living woman in her 30s struggling with a custody battle; and Ted (a farcically positive Eric M. Messner), a “downsized” midlevel manager from the Bank of America now living with his in-laws in a place he says smells like “milk and Depends.” Viewing this career fall as temporary, Ted brings a briefcase to training and burbles corporate motivational platitudes to the eye-rolling Jamie.
In a tidy drill that’s familiar to anyone who has been to Subway or Quiznos, the three learn to make, garnish and wrap sandwiches in assembly-line fashion. Bob’s a no-show on Grand Opening Day and the weeks to follow as his employees serve a dribble of customers.
They are literally left holding the bag, clinging to a sinking ship of dwindling sliced meat and cheese, down to one type of bread (whole wheat) and no chips. Sheri, who seems at first like a big “duh,” takes initiative and repeatedly calls Corporate, where she is instructed to stay open.
closes November 20, 2016
Details and tickets
Seems crazy that they would keep coming to work, especially when they are reduced to selling cheese sandwiches to customers already irate that there is no prime rib or Cherry Coke. But it’s all they’ve got and if you’ve ever been there, you can relate to their captivating mix of optimism and desperation.
Much of the play’s bleak humor stems from their deluded hope that if they just keep doing their job, they can somehow stave off the inevitable. They also form a bond—incongruous until you soon realize what they share is being bruised and passed over in life.
American Hero has predictable and obligatory elements that are straight out of a sitcom, like the hookup between Ted and Jamie that you can see coming a foot-long away and the cliché of foreign-born Bob, who because of his skin color and accent is deemed a possible terrorist.
When Wohl breaks free from convention, the play soars—especially in a wonderfully weird dream sequence where Sheri, who often sleeps in the shop between jobs, stirs to a hip-rolling vision of a signature sandwich (Fletcher, sporting a bouncy Afro and a lettuce and tomato-ruffled disco suit), who toasts her with Diet Coke from the magically-restored machine and urges her to do it her way.
Sheri saves the day—for a while—by plastering cardboard signs boasting homemade PBJs and tuna salad over the eye-catching menu board. Set designer James Fouchard’s set has that kind of garish cheeriness instantly recognizable to any fast food devotee.
Some of the comedy is routine and Suzanne Beal’s direction is workmanlike, so there are parts that seem like the low-economic drudgery portrayed onstage. But it’s a treat to see pros like Anderson, spitting out comments with vampy rancor; Messner maintaining a gung-ho attitude that rock-bottom is only a blip in the road; and Fletcher memorably delineating a variety of roles and all mixing it up with shining newcomer Evans.
American Hero by Bess Wohl . Director: Suzanne Beal. Featuring: Megan Anderson, Liliana Evans, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Eric M. Messner. Scenic Design: James Fouchard. Light Design: William D’Eugenio. Sound Design: Jerry Matheny. Costume Design: Jessica Welch. Properties Design: Millie Singer. Choreography: Joseph Ritsch. Dramaturg: Lisa Wilde. Production Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.