The woe of hard work — the conflict between the dignity of labor and the indignity of actual laboring — has long been a favorite theatrical theme, with only the particulars changing to suit the times. Once, playwrights indulged their interest in this subject by writing of farmers and sailors, subject to the whims of nature and the chain of command. Then came machinists, clerks, prostitutes, and domestics. Now we seem to have settled on fast-food workers as our favorite grunts. Astoundingly, two shows this summer involve the specific subset of sandwich-making. One is a musical (Fly By Night, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons); the other is the Second Stage Uptown production of a new play by Bess Wohl called, alas, American Hero.
The sad pun tells you a lot about Wohl’s ambitions here, including perhaps that they are too numerous. It’s a comedy, it’s a critique, it’s political, it’s interpersonal: It’s one of the indigestible combo torpedoes advertised on the backlit menu boards dominating Dane Laffrey’s set. The comedy element is the most successful, and naturally comes first, as an officious new franchisee reads the insane dictates of the corporate manual to the three new “sandwich artists” he’s hired. The “baser,” who “introduces” the sandwich, is Sheri, an 18-year-old who also works nights at a nearby El Taco to support her sickly father. (She sleeps in her car between shifts.) The “finisher,” who slaps the fixins on the roll Sheri has prepared, is Ted, an MBA downsized from Bank of America. The “wrapper” is the gum-snapping bombshell Jamie, who hastily mummifies the finished product in waxed paper, trying to meet the 20-second mandate. No cheese wrangler is listed on the program, but the actors manage this satirical business realistically enough (props to the propmaster) to convince you it’s hideous drudgery.
I’m not sure we needed convincing, but then Wohl clearly had her heart set on something more than assembly-line farce in the manner of I Love Lucy. Too bad; the cast, under Leigh Silverman’s direction, could clearly make that kind of wildness pay off. Instead the actors are forced to defer to the marionette dramaturgy of what you soon realize, with a sigh, is a parable. Each of the three sandwich artists has a Larger Function: Ted represents the delusional American religion of self-improvement; Jamie, the dead-end anarchy of the cynic; and Sheri, the surprising resourcefulness of the downtrodden. When their boss mysteriously disappears, and the tuna ominously runs out, the drama of how these abstract and now untethered forces interact — opposing, recombining, betraying — gives the play its backbone. Unfortunately, it also falsifies the characters, since real people don’t actually represent anything. Or not just one thing. They are each the blur of their many possible significances.
But that way lies the dangerous terrain of the playwright Annie Baker, whose heart-stopping recent three-hander The Aliens is set among the Dumpsters behind a coffee shop. Baker is anti-message (“If you have any comment to make,” she tells young playwrights, “write an article”) while Wohl wants it both ways. American Hero tries to be a naturalistically observed workplace comedy but also a demonstration of the way “the system” takes advantage of people’s deep emotional investment in their work. (A sign on the set at one point reads: We have been abandoned by corporate.) This causes a kind of whiplash effect, annoying the audience and eventually sending the play off the rails into surrealism. Spoiler Alert: There is a dream sequence involving a human sandwich.
The play gives off brief emanations not only of Baker but of everything from Saturday Night Live to Waiting for Godot. That’s at least several emanations too many, not just for the audience but for the actors. If they commit strongly to one style they will find it very difficult to navigate the currents when the next style takes over. Nevertheless, they manage it. Especially fine are the two women: Erin Wilhelmi as the pathetic Sheri (her wretchedness is so solid-state she seems to have a broken neck) and the fantastically sexy-angry-damaged Ari Graynor (of CBS’s Bad Teacher) as Jamie, a kind of Queen Valley Girl gone sour. Her fake interest in Ted’s uplifting homilies hilariously deflates the very idea of uplift.
This should have been a clue; I wish the character of Jamie had done a rough edit of the script. But Graynor herself (and Wilhelmi, and the others) are actually a problem. The very high level of acting talent in New York regularly outshines the plays that good acting is meant to enhance. (Silverman too, currently represented on Broadway with Violet, is especially strong with character work.) That talent may even make it harder for developing playwrights, the intended beneficiaries of series like Second Stage Uptown, to spot the flaws in their work. Watching American Hero I sometimes felt that if Wohl could see it done by a duller cast, she’d immediately notice how quickly its quirkiness becomes banal, how pro forma its little climaxes of rage and sadness seem. They are as carefully dispensed as the mustard described in the manual. But what’s a dramatist to do: workshop new plays with community theaters? Manufacturing real people is a tough job; somebody should write a play about it.
American Hero is at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre through June 8.