American Heroby Bess Wohl. Directed by Leigh Silverman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"A Twilight Zone of sandwiches."
In a sandwich franchise somewhere in America, around now I’d guess, in a mall, on the wrong side of the mall at that, three employees fight for survival. They don’t fight one another, although they might, they could and they might, and maybe they do in some ways, but they fight the system that makes life hard for them. Deserted by the franchise holder, they cannot pay the bills, and they cannot buy supplies and the regional office says they may not close down and they already know that all sandwiches "must be completed in under twenty seconds." They have no choice but to continue, a la "No Exit," that existential play of the 1940s that pretty much set the mood for this new play by Bess Wohl.
The last Bess Wohl play I saw, "Touch(ed)," was produced in this same theater almost two years ago. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way in which the author wrote. I cited it for a lack of maturity. All is forgiven, Bess Wohl. This new one, "American Hero," is nothing short of brilliant. Coming on the edge of July 4 I was anticipating a play about a soldier or about someone who sacrificed everything for his/her country. I wasn’t expecting a play about a sandwich. I especially wasn’t expecting a comedy that would have its audience constantly laughing, a comedy with a message or two buried in its multi-layered text.
"American Hero" is that elusive entity, a play that you can enjoy on many levels. It combines the instant humor found in putting diverse people together in a room with social commentary on the way America defends it mindless duplication of commercial enterprises. It is compelling theater, dealing with issues that face us daily - whether or not we acknowledge those issues - and bringing us closer than usual to the end result of flouting the system. Wohl is a delight as she writes each character true to her concept of each and making them sound so different as they share a similar fate, similar life choices for different reasons. This is fine, fine theatrical authorship.
Ari Graynor plays Jamie, single mom in a custody battle, a feisty, sexual, lower-class dame who confronts her situations from a gut-level perspective. For all of Jamie’s tough facade moments, however, Graynor brings her a soft under-belly and a human quality that is only hinted at in the writing. Eventually, gradually, we find that Jamie is a person we could like and would like to know.
James Waterston gives new meaning to middle-age. Husband, father, provider, his Ted is a man willing to sacrifice for his family, to take on the work of the impoverished young just to provide for his loved ones. Waterston allows Ted to be seen from all sides, professional, compassionate, hungry for more than food, he brings starch to the table and he provides room for it to bend the cloth of which he is made.
Representing the impoverished young is Sheri, a high school graduate played by Erin Wilhelmi, holding down two such jobs in two very different food courts in the same suburban mall. Sheri is exhausted, silent and one of the most plausible representatives I’ve encountered in theater of this human subject. Wilhelmi portrays the great strength of such a girl by showing us her weaknesses. She is vulnerable physically but indomitable creatively. She is a fascinating young woman in Wilhelmi’s hands and when threatened with a beautification by Jamie we can only shudder at the prospect, for here is a character who will not profit from alteration.
Omar Metwally plays half a dozen characters, each wonderfully different from the others. This is no small accomplishment and is a tribute to his talent and his willingness to surrender himself to a director who clearly saw the potential in his talent and used it brilliantly.
On a perfect set, designed by Timothy R. Mackabee, director Leigh Silverman has a brought a fine play with fascinating characters to life. Understanding the depths within the written dialogue Silverman brings every element to the fore as she moves her characters in and out of contact with one another. The fast-food teaming of such disparate types is not guaranteed to make a team, but in this play Silverman clearly points the way, making sense of the impractical thesis. She lets the comedy play through the human drama and that’s no mean feat.
Short runs limit our ability to experience all that is good and this show has a very short run. Run and catch it before it gets lost in a crowded regional season of interesting theater.
American Hero runs through July 7 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.