WILLIAMSTOWN -- If Jean-Paul Sartre were to pen "No Exit" today, would he still chose to lock his characters in a waiting room for all eternity? Or would he place them somewhere more modern, such as a sandwich shop where they would forever be forced to make subs?
While we will never know whether Sartre would change his locale, playwright Beth Wohl has given us the answer to what a more modern version of "No Exit" would look like if the backdrop were a sandwich franchise and the trapped souls had a chance at redemption.
"American Hero," which runs through Sunday on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, blends comedy, existentialism and social commentary as its characters try to resolve their own problems, all while struggling to keep the newly opened sub shop open after it's abandoned by both its owner and corporate headquarters.
The play begins just days before the new sandwich franchise is set to open -- the manager/owner "Bob" (Omar Metwally), a former doctor from Egypt, is hiring his three "sandwich artists," who will be tasked to create the menu's items in under 20 seconds. His hires include a mousy 17-year-old named Sheri (Erin Wilhelmi); a former corporate banker, Ted (James Waterston); and a sexy single mom Jamie (Ari Graynor). Each of the rag-tag bunch has his or her own reasons for being there -- a family member with inadequate medical coverage; an addiction that led to being fired or the inability to be a responsible adult.
As the store's opening day approaches, the sandwich team puts together subs in record time and makes fun of the stringent corporate rules as they bond (bacon must never be broken), but on the day of the grand opening their manager is nowhere to be found. Abandoned by Bob, the group struggles to enlist the aid of the corporate headquarters to keep the store open -- the only directive and help given by a regional office. Together they find a way to keep the shop open -- slapping together tuna-salad or butter-only sandwiches when shipments run out, while also learning about themselves and each other.
The play is full of comedic moments and deadpan one liners, such as "I make a kick-ass tuna salad. It's my biggest skill," which keep the play light as it explores the depths of each character's flaws and comments on the state of American economics. When corporate finally comes to visit, the representative (one of several roles taken on by Metwally) implores the trio not to blame him for the lack of communication and support -- after all the company is $300 million in debt and franchise shops are being closed all around the country.
Wohl and director Leigh Silverman have put together an introspective glance into the lives of the everyday worker, struggling to survive on meager wages, only to have their loyalty tossed aside by corporate bigwigs. Each character is superbly cast, bringing an honesty and truth to stage -- undoubtedly a benefit of being the first actors to ever play the parts. Graynor especially delights as the irresponsible, foul-mouthed single-mother, Jamie, whose desperation and struggle to survive swells to the surface near the end of the play.
The play does have its flaws as it winds down -- there's a struggle to find the right combination of comedy, social commentary and existentialism. At times the play becomes too heavy, when a character protests the hand they've been dealt too much, but it eventually gets back on track -- a redeemable quality that makes this "American Hero" worth taking a bite.
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