For a play that needs to go through at least one more draft, “American Hero” is more provocative and entertaining than you’d expect. Set in a generic sandwich shop in an anonymous strip mall, Bess Wohl’s quirky comedy observes a few specimens of the embattled American working class whose aspirational hopes and dreams have been reduced to the low-wage service jobs they’re fighting to hang onto. Under Leigh Silverman’s sure directorial hand, a smart cast fills in some of the blanks of their unfinished characters, lending them some dignity in their darkest moments of comic desperation.
The existential plight of the new owner of a sub shop franchise and his three freshly hired “sandwich artists” is not to be sneered at, although the drama that wracks their souls does involve how many slices of cheese should go into a sandwich. Simmering beneath the heroic battle to succeed in a cutthroat market — and the great crisis when the franchise is abandoned by its corporate owners — is a metaphorically rich survival drama about individual pluck and group courage.
The stage is set (literally, on Dane Laffrey’s cheery approximation of a sub shop) when Bob (Daoud Heidami), a high-strung gentleman of indeterminate but vaguely Middle Eastern ethnic origin, opens his new franchise operation. Anxiously referring to a massive manual, Bob struggles to explain the precise duties of a “sandwich artist” to his new hires: Ted (Jerry O’Connell, on top of his game), an upbeat company man scrambling to climb the ranks to middle management; Jamie (Ari Graynor, “Bad Teacher”-takes-a-sabbatical), sexy, seething, a hot mess; and Sheri (the extremely winning Erin Wilhelmi), a teenage basket case.
No matter what fancy labels are attached to their individual duties (the manual carefully distinguishes between a “starter,” a “finisher,” and a “wrapper”) these are menial jobs. But these needy “sandwich artists” are infinitely grateful to have them — for reasons that are dashed off much too briskly and need to be developed with more thought and feeling.
The thesps are wonderfully adept at shading in their unfinished characters with eloquent body language. Graynor’s aggressive sexuality speaks volumes about Jamie’s personal demons. O’Connell’s stiff spine says a lot about Ted’s control issues. And Wilhelmi’s defeated posture shows us what a beaten spirit looks like. None of this makes up for the untold stories and the unspoken words, but it shows how hard the actors are trying.
Bob’s character is less well served by Heidami, who is given precious little to work with, aside from the anxious franchise owner’s nervous blustering. But the striving immigrant entrepreneur has also been betrayed by the American dream of success, and his story also deserves to be heard.
Aside from hapless Bob, these human cogs in the machinery of American enterprise snap out of their trance when the sandwich shop is abandoned by its corporate masters. Supplies go undelivered. Orders go unfilled. And if the employees don’t snap out of it and take over, payrolls will be unmet.
Will the sub shop go under? Will the workers unite? Will peanut butter sandwiches replace the mighty torpedo submarine? This is America, isn’t it, so need you ask?