In 2016, Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew premiered downtown at the Atlantic Theater, first in its subterranean Off–Off Broadway space, then a few blocks away at the 199-seat main stage. In these hothouses, the play — a study in pressure — flourished. A small-cast drama about a Detroit factory closing down, Skeleton Crew reveals the immense reserves of people mistaken by management (and sometimes one other) for replaceable cogs. Nearly every beat of the drama deals with some concealment — of a gun, of a crisis, of love. This “more is hidden than shown” quality pervades every part of Morisseau’s script, even her character list. She describes the plant foreman Reggie (after noting his age and race and job) this way: “Somewhere, a fire brims.”
Now Skeleton Crew has come to Broadway, produced by Manhattan Theater Club in its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, a gilded palace of deep-cut rosettes, classical pediments, and, most of all, soaring volumes of space. It’s not always obvious which Off Broadway shows will blossom in a venue like that. Earlier this season, Ruben Santiago-Hudson performed his one-man show at the Friedman, which rang with every word he spoke; he was the clapper inside a huge neoclassical bell. Yet now, working as a director, Santiago-Hudson returns with Skeleton Crew, and there’s far less ease in the way the show uses the room. In the drafty hall, Morisseau’s carefully banked fires start to flicker.
It’s 2008, and the last sheet-metal-stamping plant in Detroit is on the brink of closing. With more and more auto-body work moving overseas, there’s no question that it will close, but the timing is a mystery — this month? Next year? The difference matters: Dez (Joshua Boone) needs to save a little more to open his own business; pregnant Shanita (Chanté Adams) hopes to make enough of a mark with the higher-ups to be transferred somewhere good; and Faye (Phylicia Rashad) is about to retire. “Retirement package be real different for 29 years versus 30,” Faye says wearily. Even after decades as the shop’s union rep, Faye has already fallen over the financial edge. She has started spending nights in the break room because it’s too cold to sleep in her car.
The entire show takes place in this break room, where small gestures — sharing a salad, bringing good coffee beans from home — hint at how close the three line workers have grown. Dez and Shanita bicker the way people who like each other do; his swagger annoys her, but she also confides in him about how deeply she loves their work. No one actually pays much heed to the foreman, Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden), but he once worked on the line, too, and as management pressures him to downsize, he’s caught between loyalty and self-preservation. Faye has known and cared about Reggie since he was young, so her steel-toed anti-boss toughness softens around him. When he begs her not to tell the union that the shutdown is imminent, she keeps his secret.
As a storytelling engine, Skeleton Crew glides along, with complications slotting neatly into revelations and a worker’s poetry lubricating the action. “I know everything about this place,” says Faye. “The walls talk to me. The dust on the floors write me messages.” Morisseau is the modern-day bard of Detroit — her other work includes Detroit ’67 and Paradise Blue — and those two plays treat some aspect of the city’s past specifically through its music. It takes a moment to realize she has written in the same key here, but instead of imagining Motown record parties or jazz-age trumpeters, she envisions a score of metal-stamping, piston-pumping, and whistle-blowing. During transitions, Santiago-Hudson has dancer Adesola Osakalumi pop and lock, playing a lyrical impression of the factory itself, his choreographic precision echoing the way a hydraulic press slams into position. There’s perhaps too little of that kind of music in the scenes, but it’s a welcome element between them.
The hugeness of the Friedman, though, emphasizes how few other figures there are in Morisseau’s drama, and that makes its reality falter. When Shanita talks about the constant clamor of the plant, we don’t hear much; no one besides these four seems to work there. And where the play pays scrupulous attention to the in-room dynamics, the outside world seems smeared with broad strokes. Everyone talks about what the UAW could do to help, yet it never does; there are few specifics about organizing apart from Dez’s complaints about union dues. In a huge factory, for some reason, Faye is the union’s only point of contact and information. To make the plot (if not collective action) work, every decision needs to rest on this one woman’s shoulders.
The production, too, rests on Rashad’s presence. Dirden is good (as he always is) at showing thought-in-action: You can see doubts shudder through his body even when his back is turned. The audience and the Friedman Theatre, though, need an operatic figure to focus all that space — and Rashad is it. Rashad’s Faye wears baggy jeans and a shlumpy sweatshirt, and when she walks, she favors her back, like a woman who has done manual labor for a long time. But then, when Rashad turns her head suddenly, she looks like a queen. At its root, Skeleton Crew is about finding dignity — both in work and in the relationships between people — and it’s useful, therefore, to have a person onstage who can gather majesty around her like a shawl. Rashad might seem to stop being Faye in these moments, but it doesn’t break the show. She takes on the spirit of the underlying play, becoming something like the personification of labor itself. She turns into something larger and more commanding than the merely individual drama around her, and all of Broadway turns to look.
Skeleton Crew is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 20.