Left to right: Cael Barkman, Ben Ash, Jon van Luling and Emily Benway
The three main characters in Vermont Stage's production of American Hero are a comic lineup of coping strategies for minimum-wage earners. Nothing can penetrate Jamie's don't-give-a-shit armor. Ted proclaims he's too good for the work but snaps to attention to obey the rules. And Sheri, juggling two McJobs, is the portrait of the service-worker zombie rationing her energy by staying in the shadows. That's what it takes to reconcile earning $7.25 an hour with any shred of self-worth. That and a huge sense of humor.
Bess Wohl's 2013 comedy comes right to the edge of diatribe but steers clear of heavy moralizing. Like a Bruce Springsteen song, the play delivers some acute character details as it asks us to take a long look at people working at a fast-food franchise. But, unlike Springsteen, Wohl has to serve up a plot, and it's here that her play reveals itself as neither social-commentary fish nor character-sketch fowl.
The performances almost rescue a script that can't decide whether to aim a jab at capitalism or patronize its victims. The characters are introduced as caricatures: can't-be-bothered hell-raiser, bossy windbag, beaten-down nonentity. Wohl's main political act is asking us not to dismiss people whose days are spent asking, "For here or to go?"
To earn that second look for her characters, Wohl creates conditions that force them to reveal the shame or sorrow they'd rather hide. After a deeper view, we can have sympathy for the circumstances that brought each of them to a dead-end job. And we can laugh, with them and at them.
The setting is a franchise sub shop. Human ingenuity has found a way to extract the maximum profit from food by confining people and product to strict standardization, but the characters in American Hero aren't great candidates for homogenization. Nevertheless, they don matching ball caps and aprons for the same reason anyone does: They need a job badly enough to take a miserable one.
Bob, the franchise owner, is new to entrepreneurship, but he's got a manual and a stopwatch to drill his trio to assemble a sandwich in 20 seconds. Mysteriously, he doesn't show up for opening day, or any of the days thereafter.
Stuck together, the hapless sandwich crew makes the best of it. For Jamie, that means living out the Mount Everest theory of sexual attraction: Her insta-tryst with very-married Ted takes place because he's there.
The squad stays on the fast-food front lines, but when the sandwich ingredients dwindle, the only instructions that come from corporate headquarters are to keep the store open. An indignant customer howls the existential question, "How can you be out of turkey?"
Wohl tries to pin her plot on this dilemma of three misfits running a franchise "abandoned by corporate." The playwright tosses in a dream sequence and attempts to blend social satire with theater of the absurd, as if juggling genres will conceal the structural flaws in the comic premise. Adding ingredients to a sandwich might work, but too many tropes compromise this concoction.
Wohl's characters, and not her story, make this show. Director Cristina Alicea gives the actors chances to demonstrate their collective skills at repartee and their fine comic timing.
Thursday's audience laughed readily at banter spiked with physical gags and nice feats of deadpan drollery. Jamie wheels out pail and mop with gum-cracking nonchalance. Ted helpfully points out a spot she missed and waits, idiotically, for her to care enough to return to it. Not gonna happen. And so this mismatched group never becomes the "team" of a training manual but builds its own us-against-the-world bond.
Cael Barkman, as Jamie, is a master of the sexy slouch. She slinks in with an oversize handbag that she'll brazenly fill with sandwiches she's swiped. Barkman gives Jamie's very indifference a kind of grandeur, turning cracking gum into the definitive response to an inhospitable world. If Jamie's self-confidence is limited to shoplifting, Barkman makes it damned heroic.
Ben Ash masterfully keeps Ted swerving between bravado and humiliation. An MBA left on the recession scrap heap, he craves at least a modicum of the authority he had in a previous position. But, like his fellow "sandwich artists," he must keep this fast-food job at all costs. Ash's bright eyes glow when Ted blusters, and his desperate search for a middle-manager toehold behind a sneeze guard is both hilarious and heartrending.
Emily Benway plays Sheri as a tightly wound worker bee, trying to keep both her pride and her pain a secret. With a relentless deadpan style, Benway shows Sheri gripping her coffee to steel herself for another day. And when she finds a reason to hope, Benway keeps Sheri's poker face in place — happiness is an alien emotion that she treats with suspicion.
Jon van Luling plays four supporting characters with nice comic flourishes — Bob the store owner, who signals blind obedience to a bulky franchise manual; an indignant customer; a corporate franchise representative and an actual sandwich.
Scenic designer Jeff Modereger and prop master Sue Wade create a fine working sub store, down to the Coke dispenser and restaurant equipment. However, it looks more like a valiant local sandwich shop than one of hundreds of identical franchises endowed with million-dollar marketing. The spatial design is excellent, but the set lacks intimidating corporate perfection.
The workers don't rise up to overthrow anything, but they do give us a window into life at the short end of the economic stick. The actors easily earn the laughs and make a nice bid for empathy, too. Unfortunately, the play itself is too much like fast food. The first few bites are tasty, but ultimately the fare isn't satisfying. This production portrays the characters with great comic style, but the script's calories are empty ones.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Living to Serve"
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.