For those us who find satisfaction and excitement in a well-presented version of a brand-new play, there is a great deal to admire in Bess Wohl’s “American Hero.”
The play is stuffed with wonderfully honest dialogue, smart staging and crackerjack design. Unfortunately, this odd tale of three “sandwich shop artists” trying to overcome limitations with the support of one another (and some kickin’ tuna salad) and find the hero within leaves one to muse that sometimes “a hero ain’t nothin’ but a sandwich.”
Simply stating that this American hero story is a shift of the struggle of the individual against the corporate behemoth from boardroom to Blimpie is an unfair assessment of Wohl’s play. She has crafted something much more than that. Mashing together a set of the recently disenfranchised — a downsized banker with an MBA and “boundary issues,” a single mom with quick temper and sticky fingers and a social misfit with a sombrero and an overactive dream life — Wohl offers them hope and a second chance.
WHERE: Williamstown Theater Festival, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass.
WHEN: Through July 7, 2013
HOW MUCH: $50
MORE INFO: 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
Labeled a “surreal tale of the struggle for optimism,” the play is not that surreal. I don’t work in a sandwich shop — yet — but the struggles these characters face are familiar to all of us.
As with her extremely fine play “Touch(ed)” at Williamstown a few seasons back, Wohl’s characters are deftly created and voiced. The dialogue flows completely naturally, laughs arrive honestly and with genuine humor.
Hard to find balance
The problem is that when paired with the palpable pathos the characters feel and the obstacles they face, the hope and humor are almost suffocated and the evening becomes a bit uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable is good — sometimes. But the play’s truly bleak moments would go down better if they were more evenly balanced with the promised surrealism, which arrives only in spurts.
The story is a hard one to balance. Dodging the characters’ despair at the futility of their efforts with hope, bits of fantasy and surrealism is a lofty goal. But it doesn’t work here. The play — like life — flips from comedy to drama on a dime and just skirts true fantasy, but it does not give the audience permission to fully laugh, join up or run away.
The result is an evening that at times genuinely amuses and truly touches, but ultimately frustrates.
Leigh Silverman’s staging captures the monotonous routine of the characters’ work life — chairs stacked, floor mopped, lights off. Lights on, stools down, food unboxed, tomatoes sliced. A subtle, brilliant bit of irony is played in silence as the three sandwich artists stand, gloved hands poised, ready to assemble the sandwiches for the lunch crowd that doesn’t arrive.
Playing faintly in the background is a Muzak version of “The Pina Colada Song” (aka “Escape”). Sublime! More of these clever bits — and a stronger use of the “Prime Rib” dream sequence (no spoilers here) — would have spiced up the fantasy value to this theatrical combo meal.
All four actors — Ari Graynor, Omar Metwally, James Waterston and Erin Wilhelm — do outstanding work fleshing out the flawed characters in a way that is often startlingly real and uncomfortable, which is great!
The design of the show is spot-on perfect. From floor to ceiling, light switch to corporate T-shirt, all aspects of the show reflect the reality — you can almost smell the Southwest Chicken sandwich makings.
Ironically, what is missing is an “Exit” sign, allowing us entry to the fantasy aspects needed to let us “in.”