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Grinders

by Ralph Hammann on July 3, 2013

American Hero
By Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through July 7

 

The failure of the American Dream is scarily common subject matter these days, and one fears that the latest take on it might be as stale as week-old bread that has not been genetically modified and impregnated with preservatives. But Bess Wohl’s original look at the dream’s demise is fresh and fiercely funny. It is also surprisingly poignant due to the honesty of the actors and our familiarity with their characters.

American Hero at WTF

Sheri, Jamie and Ted are the people we encounter whenever we are seduced into entering the dread fast-food franchises that have contributed to the deadening of originality, sapping of independent enterprise, and raising of cholesterol and obesity. They perform the numbing routine of cheerily greeting us, enduring our persnickety demands or dumb jokes, adjusting to the various permutations of our mundane orders, and wrapping the same in 20 seconds or less.

It is no wonder they are susceptible to the mental equivalent of carpel tunnel syndrome. This may be the true World War Z, a world of taste-diminished zombies lining up to be fed by spiritless ones. However, Wohl’s play doesn’t take a simplistically satiric approach and, instead, imbues the three workers with a humanity that’s gradually revealed in their workplace, an unnamed sub shop that features “Tasty Torpedoes” in the de rigueur sterile environment. The immediate inspiration would appear to be Subway, but Timothy R. Mackabee’s set manages to evoke a host of such chain stores where such characters struggle at the bottom of the food chain. The cleverest aspect of the set: wallpaper that depicts nameless streets in Any Suburbia, USA, and which discreetly locates a cemetery above the manager’s 6-by-6-foot office.

As the trio gamely endeavor to manufacture hero sandwiches under the stopwatch of their similarly struggling manager, the prescient humor of Charles Chaplin’s riotously dehumanizing assembly line in Modern Times is evoked, but, as with Chaplin, the humor is leavened with both pathos and heroism not far afield from Samuel Beckett. Indeed, one of Wolh’s masterstrokes involves the graceful manner in which she slips in a leavening dose of existentialism without breaking the pace or flow of the humor. She has the sensibility of Woody Allen and the deftness of one-liners of both Allen and Neil Simon. The play’s last lines are the wittiest I’ve heard in years.

The comic crisis arrives when the trio are abandoned first by their hapless manager (the excellent Omar Metwally in one of several savory roles) and then by their corporate headquarters. It is here where the characters attain dimension and truly realize their potentials as progeny of the Americans who created the dream and broke new frontiers. As well, the play takes on marvelous aspects of “last outpost” stories where a small group of people are abandoned and left to their own devices to cope with impossible odds. As they do, American Hero finds its heart and ingenuity.

Ari Graynor perfectly provides the curves and street smarts of Jamie, a former cosmetologist who is fighting for custody of her kids while attempting to give them their American birthrights, which would seem to include such toys as $79.99 Power Rangers. Even the way she snaps her gum is a statement of her suppressed libido. As Ted, James Waterston convincingly turns a seemingly flat MBA who has been downsized into a dimensional white knight. Best of all is Erin Wilhelmi as Sheri. Looking almost too believable as a sleep-deprived, anemic, anorexic and nervous waif, Wilhelmi develops a true radiance in her marvelous metamorphosis from a timid albino mouse into the play’s most engaging hero whose little triumph elicits inner cheers and broad smiles.