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American Hero

Bess Wohl captures the can-do American spirit in her new play at Second Stage Uptown.

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Ari Graynor as Jamie, Jerry O'Connell as Ted, and Erin Wilhelmi as Sheri in Bess Wohl's American Hero, directed by Leigh Silverman, a production of Second Stage Uptown at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

The plight of the sandwich artist, one of contemporary society's most undervalued professions, is explored with great detail in American Hero, a quirky new play by Bess Wohl at Second Stage Uptown. Three lowly workers see their lives flashing before their eyes as they find themselves victims of the economy, a subject far too many people can relate to nowadays.

The sandwich-making trio in question comprises Sheri (Erin Wilhelmi), Jamie (Ari Graynor), and Ted (Jerry O'Connell), three very different people from three extremely different walks of life. Sheri, 18, is painfully timid and works another job at a taco place to make ends meet. Jamie, in her early 30s, is a loudmouthed single mom waged in a bitter custody battle. Ted, the oldest, with a wife and two kids, is a former banker and a victim of corporate downsizing. The light at the end of their collective tunnels is the sandwich franchise Mmmm!, a new branch that has just opened in the local mall by Bob (Daoud Heidami), a Middle Easterner who was a doctor in his country before moving to the States.

After weeks of training, which Wohl depicts in a series of hilariously realistic vignettes, the Mmmm! finally opens and Bob promptly disappears. Inquiring calls to the regional office from Ted and Jamie are met with terse "stay open, no matter what" messages. Faced with dwindling supplies and customers irate because the location is all out of prime-rib torpedo sandwiches, the gang, led by Sheri, takes matters into its own hands.

It's an inspiring sight, and it's safe to say that no theater piece since Newsies has so expertly captured the American can-do spirit. Wohl and director Leigh Silverman paint a vivid portrait of people who are forced to take charge in order to survive in a world that doesn't listen to them. Not all of American Hero is perfect; there are certain sections where the playwright has a tendency to use Sheri, Jamie, Ted, and others to serve as her personal mouthpieces. While this is admirable, the dialogue doesn't come off as believable as it does in the rest of the play.

Silverman, a recent Tony nominee for her work on Broadway's Violet, nicely reconciles the play's quirks and tonal shifts — even a fantasy sequence where a sandwich comes to life isn't as jarring as it could be. More important, she pulls vivid, passionate performances from her four actors. Graynor is hilarious and recognizable as a woman who'll do just about anything out of desperation. Wilhelmi is so awkward and shy it's agonizing. Heidami navigates four characters with finesse. And O'Connell, perhaps the best of the bunch, is heartbreaking as a victim of circumstance who can get by only with an aggressive, relentless positivity that's secretly hiding a crushed soul.

Similarly fine work is provided by the creative team, particularly scenic designer Dane Laffrey, who has so startlingly re-created the interior of a Subway-like shop that you do a double take upon entering the theater. Clint Ramos' costumes and Jen Schriever's lighting are fine complements. Sound designer Jill B.C. Du Boff fills the scene changes with Muzak covers of contemporary pop songs, another one of the highlights of Silverman's tongue-in-cheek staging.

American Hero is quite possibly one of the more astutely observed plays about the current economic climate and life in the postrecession world to come out in the past few years. The next time you order your six-inch chicken-and-bacon ranch melt with chipotle sauce and a chocolate chip cookie, remember that your sandwich artists may be people just struggling to get by. And tomorrow, you could be one of them, too.

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