×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘American Hero’ Starring Ari Graynor, Jerry O’Connell

Bess Wohl's entertaining, provocative new play could use another draft, but it's well-served by a strong cast.

With:
Ari Graynor, Daoud Heidami, Jerry O'Connell, Erin Wilhelmi.

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?

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'American Hero' Starring Ari Graynor, Jerry O'Connell

Second Stage Uptown; 96 seats; $35 top.  Opened May 22, 2014. Reviewed May 21. Running time:  ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.

Production: A Second Stage Theater production of a play in one act by Bess Wohl.

Creative: Directed by Leigh Silverman. Set, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Jill BC DuBoff; production stage manager, Stephen Milosevich.

Cast: Ari Graynor, Daoud Heidami, Jerry O'Connell, Erin Wilhelmi.

More Legit

  • Broadway-Breakfast-Split

    Variety to Celebrate Second Business of Broadway Breakfast With Thomas Schumacher, Diane Paulus and Diablo Cody

    Variety has announced the lineup for its second annual Business of Broadway breakfast presented by City National Bank. Joining the breakfast on Oct. 7 is the president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher, who will take part in the event’s keynote conversation. In his position, Thomas oversees the company’s worldwide stage productions, which [...]

  • Sue Wagner John Johnson

    Tony-Winning Producers Sue Wagner and John Johnson Announce New Venture, Wagner Johnson Productions

    Sue Wagner and John Johnson, seven-time Tony award-winning producers, announced Wednesday that they have embarked on a new theatrical business venture, Wagner Johnson Productions. Under the name, they will produce and general manage a wide scope of theater productions. One of Wagner Johnson Productions’ current projects is a musical rendition of “Almost Famous,” which will [...]

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s first appearance on the Great White Way since his 2014 performance in the revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” The five-year absence saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content