A dreary sandwich shop in a soulless strip mall is the setting for Bess Wohl’s thought-provoking, if unevenly seasoned “American Hero,” a comedy about three “sandwich artists” left to pick up the Sun Chips when they’re abandoned by the store manager and his corporate overlords.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, a Tony nominee for the Roundabout’s stirring musical “Violet,” “Hero” is an offering from Second Stage Theatre’s uptown series, which focuses on emerging playwrights. Wohl is both a writer and an actress, whose on-screen credits include the Jodie Foster thriller “Flightplan."
In “American Hero,” Wohl’s minimum-wage workers are a trio of post-recession archetypes: a single-mom hoping to prevail in a custody battle (2ST vet Ari Graynor, of "The Little Dog Laughed"); an MBA recently axed from his banking job (Jerry O’Connell, last seen on Broadway in “Seminar”); and an awkward teen (Erin Wilhelmi), exhausted by her other gig at a taco joint.
The three are the inaugural employees at a toasted subs franchise with a cloyingly methodical South Asian manager (Daoud Heidami, fine as a by-the-books drone) who probably isn’t a terrorist, as the crew briefly suspects, but is definitely a bozo—he’s sunk nearly half a million into a franchise “opportunity” with slim odds of success.
We meet this awkward gang during a training session, as Heidami’s Bob is passionlessly teaching the charges how to make a sandwich per the corporate manual. When Bob doesn’t show up for the grand opening, Jamie (Graynor), Ted (O’Connell) and Sheri (Wilhelmi, above, with Heidami) are forced to examine whether the rudderless sub shop has the makings of a viable lifeboat for any of them.
This is the point in “American Hero” where you’re meant to stop and wonder: Why don’t these three just leave, since their paychecks walked out the door alongside Bob? It’s a question Wohl answers only half-heartedly, and it leaves the rest of the 90-minute piece on shaky ground. “This f—ing place. It’s all I have,” kvetches Ted, the father of two now forced to live with his in-laws. It just isn't plausible that there would be no comparable jobs anywhere else in this humdrum town.
Graynor, of the just-axed TV comedy “Bad Teacher,” is a reliable comic presence, notably as she attempts to seduce strait-laced Ted—this is Jamie’s first gig since being fired from SuperCuts “for stealing mousse.” O’Connell uses his 6-foot-2-inch frame to fine effect, creating a character who is, in all senses, too big a fish to operate in this small a pond. The lesser-known Wilhelmi (recently of The Public’s “The Great Immensity”) does yeoman’s work, as the one employee with a vision for getting out of this mess.
The climax exposes a Russian nesting doll of corporate misery, straight up to the CEO's office. At times, “American Hero” makes you feel as if you’re being bonked on the head with a foot-long loaf of 9-grain wheat, but we do get Wohl’s point: no matter where you fall on the food chain, you’re bound to encounter frustration in a day and age when uniformity and profit are valued over creativity and inspiration.
“American Hero” calls to mind a range of anxiety-generating post-recession narratives, among them Laura Marks’ “Bethany,” which saw America Ferrera employed at a doomed Saturn dealership. Wohl’s dialogue can be as bland as iceberg lettuce or as peppery as arugula, but the ideas she’s toying with do, indeed, leave you plenty to chew on.
“American Hero,” through June 15 at Second Stage Theatre’s uptown McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway. Tickets: $25. Call 212-246-4422 or visit www.2ST.com.
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