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American Hero

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jerry O'Connell, Erin Wilhelmi, and Ari Graynor
Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm not sure even Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill could wring much drama from a fast-food sandwich shop running out of ingredients. Yet in Bess Wohl's play American Hero, which just opened at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series, that's an integral part of the plot. Supplies slowly dwindle to nothing, leaving the frazzled employees on shift desperately trying to feed a hungry world (or city, or maybe just shoppers at a strip mall) on no prime rib (the biggest seller) and a few errant slices of cheddar. Which, actually, sort of makes sense given that Wohl's play is light on the meat but heavy on the cheese.

What else could it be? Watching Ted (Jerry O'Connell), Jamie (Ari Graynor), and Sheri (Erin Wilhelmi) trying to make something out of nothing is clearly symbolic: Just as their customers are left with no choices, so two are these "sandwich artists" who have reached the bottom of the mustard barrel and are scraping it for any knifeful they can get. But the disintegration of the so-called American Dream in the wake of the financial crisis from several years ago (though the play is ostensibly set in the present) is a hefty subject that demands a more robust and thoughtful treatment than it receives here.

The biggest roadblock is the characters, who are broadly sketched but never acquire the solidity of genuine archetypes or the depth of real people. Ted is a former investment banker who has trouble keeping his libido in check, and is quite a bit dumber than he looks or acts. Jamie is a stereotypical blonde: not on the smart side herself, and heavily opportunistic. Sheri, the youngest, is the one who acknowledges her lack of people skills, confidence, and good ideas, but is of course the one who's just wise enough to save the day. Even the subsidiary characters (all acceptably played by Daoud Heidami) fall into check-box categories: the flustered, incomprehensible Middle-Eastern franchise holder; the nasty customer; the no-nonsense corporate representative.

At least in this setting (the hyper-realistically chintzy storefront scenic design is by Dane Laffrey), their interactions simply aren't that interesting. Once Ted demonstrates interest in Jamie, is there any doubt how things can or must go? When Jamie's first lie hits, it's not difficult to determine what the next one will be. And when Sheri reveals herself, in the opening minutes, as so underequipped that she can barely fill out an application form, you know that she has to save the day (or at least come close to it). Perhaps with more time (the show runs less than 90 minutes, with no intermission), Wohl might have been able to build in more complexities, but as they are, things are as flat as a post-pressing panini.

The actors, playing to their types, don't have much room to maneuver, something that particularly hampers McConnell and Wilhelmi, who settle for one note (hunky good guy destined to fall, wispy quiet girl destined for loudness) and play it endlessly, and boringly, until they're interrupted by the final blackout. Graynor works to find levels in Jamie, and does discover some sympathy beneath her lacquered facade that lets her final exit be believably different than her first entrance; but even she's not naturally successful at overcoming the woman's natural contradictions. (It's impossible to determine, for example, whether she actually has the three children she claims to.) Director Leigh Silverman, who elicited such powerful emotions from the current Broadway revival of Violet, hasn't found a similarly effective entry into the feelings that should be at play here.

Neither has Wohl, for that matter. Her meandering story has difficulty deciding whether Ted, Jamie, and Sheri should be the victims or the victors of their situation, and things end up more than a little confusing. The final scenes involve the three workers learning to take charge of their lives for the first time in ages, and then facing the consequences of those actions. But the final exchange suggests they haven't learned anything, and sacrifices cogent development (or at least an explanation) in favor of an eye-rolling curtain joke that is, at best, tangentially related to the action, and not at all related to its meaning.

Much of American Hero is like that, with effect substituting for substance most times the chance arises. It's easy enough to appreciate what Wohl is apparently attempting, but the final product, like most of the sandwiches the trio is capable of making during their darkest moments of despair, leaves you hungry.

American Hero
Through June 15
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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