There’s a specific sort of aspirational quality to works with the word “American” in their title, a desire to say something that, whether critical or complimentary, may somehow seem emblematic. Now at Second Stage’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre with direction by Leigh Silverman, Bess Wohl’s American Hero is no exception. And while it does succeed in making that big statement about The Way We Live Now, namely that we’re overworked, underpaid, and dehumanized by corporate overlords, it feels a bit expected, more of a foregone conclusion than a hypothesis under consideration.
Without that ambiguity, the show ends up tasting slightly bland, which may perhaps seem inevitable for a play about sandwich makers (or, stubbornly, “sandwich artists”) toiling in a mall’s toasted sub franchise. True to form, they’re each neat archetypes of 21st-century minimum-wage workers. Diminutive Sheri (Erin Wilhelmi) is only 18, but constantly frazzled, as though perpetually on the brink of total physical collapse. Jamie (Ari Graynor), meanwhile, has the “fuck it all” carelessness and lax sexuality of a rock star, but the résumé of a mediocre hairdresser. Ted (Jerry O’Connell), a divorced father and former Bank of America employee, is the walking, talking version of the nauseatingly perky, can-do signs that adorn the shop (“Life is like a sandwich—the more you add to it, the better it becomes.”—Unknown).
We meet them in that sub shop (a depressingly accurate rendering courtesy of Dane Laffrey) just before the grand opening as Bob (Daoud Heidami), a recent immigrant of ambiguous origin who owns the place, teaches them company protocol, barking orders like a drill sergeant. At first, the trio shares the good-natured, pragmatic sort of camaraderie one might expect of strange but cordial bedfellows. But when Bob stops showing up to the shop and food shipments halt, it’s just the sort of Breakfast Club-style scenario needed to cast off their protective shells and reveal—you guessed it—the fraught realities of their post-Great Recession lives.
Sheri, it turns out, often sleeps in her car after her shift in the brief hours before her second job at a nearby taco restaurant, which she holds to help cover her father’s medical bills. Jamie is in a custody battle for her three children, one of whom, like generations of quintessentially sad kids before him, wants a bike for his birthday that she just can’t afford. Ted, meanwhile, is haunted by the circumstances that led to his dismissal at the bank, and is miserable after being forced to move in with his wife’s parents. “Half the reason I even come here is just to get out of the house,” Ted says, almost breaking down. “This fucking place…It’s all I have.”
So it could use a bit less cheese. But most of the time, the performances manage to sell even the most maudlin or outlandish bits (a fantasy sequence involving a dancing prime rib sandwich comes dangerously close to being the exception). Even when some scenes do fall flat, hilarious muzak renditions of popular songs including Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” tend to restore some levity.
Under instructions from the company’s unseen higher-ups, our heroes continue to report to work day after day, disappointing customers and running through the existing supplies until there’s nothing left. Eventually, desperate to save the business and keep their jobs, they decide, at Sheri’s suggestion, to buy groceries and prepare sandwiches of their own design. It’s one of those “It’s so crazy it just might work!” cockamamie schemes that, of course, works. When we catch up with the trio later, they’ve refashioned the store and their uniforms to their own adorable, handmade liking and business is booming. It’s the perfect underdog success story. The only things missing are the “We are the 99 percent!” banners.
Even when that plan unravels the odds seem forever in the trio’s favor. A representative from the sub corporation arrives at long last, and after appearing threatening for the briefest of moments, launches into a frank and impassioned monologue about his own troubled existence (“Do you think I’m here by choice? Do you think when I was a kid, I was like, hey, maybe one day I’ll grow up to be an associate manager of franchise relations?”) before miraculously rewarding Sheri for her ingenuity with, no joke, a free vacation.
The ending isn’t as sweet or decisive for all our sandwich artists, but their futures, even in their vagueness, feel somehow bright. Indeed, a “Yes We Can!” sort of optimism lingers over much of the events in American Hero, an enduring sense that things will inevitably turn out all right. That belief, more than anything, seems the most prototypically “American” of all the attitudes presented here. The fact that, in the case of this country’s minimum-wage workforce, this is at best a fable, and at worst a delusion, is just not an idea that Wohl seems to want to truly address. It’s the absence of that level of engagement that makes the play more of a trifle than a fully satisfying meal.
American Hero runs at Second Stage through June 8.