There’s little wrong with “Skeleton Crew,” the final play in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, that August Wilson couldn’t fix. Like Wilson, whose ten-play cycle surveys a century of African American life, this playwright has heart, along with a sense of historical moments that define the lives of ordinary Americans. Her rough-edged dialogue even has a touch of the street poet. What’s missing in the work, now playing at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, is a grasp of character-driven dramatic action — although that can still be acquired.
That’s not to say that the completion of “The Detroit Project” isn’t in itself an achievement, as much for political substance as for style. The first play, “Detroit ’67,” depicted the city’s devastating race riots from the perspective of residents who considered those events a social rebellion. “Paradise Blue” viewed a massive 1940s urban renewal project through the eyes of the jazz community whose thriving culture was displaced by a highway.
Morisseau (“Shameless”) foresees another major disaster looming in “Skeleton Crew” (perfect title), which observes three auto workers and their supervisor clinging to their jobs at the city’s last functioning export auto plant. An Expressionist sequence of robo-rock music and automatized dance (choreographed and performed by Adesola Osakalumi) is a pounding introduction to the relentless rhythms of assembly line work. It’s pretty obvious why the starkly ugly setting (by Michael Carnahan) of the factory break room — with its shabby furnishings, metal lockers and battered coffee station — feels like such a comforting refuge.
Under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s sensitive directorial hand, a small, impressive ensemble deliver well-detailed character studies of the plant workers. Lynda Gravatt is fierce and fine as the homeless but proud union rep who has been secretly living in the break room. Jason Dirden vacillates convincingly as a decent but angry young man who has somehow gotten hold of a gun. Nikiya Mathis is all sweetness and light as a pregnant girl who is happy with her life and, too bad for her, loves her job. And Wendell B. Franklin makes a mensch of the young supervisor who cares enough for his workers to put a portable heater in the break room.
These characters talk a good game — a very good game, when Morisseau puts all her heart into a speech. But nothing consequential comes from the chummy interaction among friendly characters and, being pawns of the system they work under, none of their emoting gives them the slightest power to change — or, more important, to participate in — what’s coming.