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Theater Review: “American Hero”

“American Hero” plays through October 15, 2017 at New Village Arts, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad.
Photo credit:
New Village Arts

Or is it?

Playwright Bess Wohl explores the minimum-wage bind food workers are in and the corporate greed that takes advantage of it in “American Hero,” playing through Oct. 15 at New Village Arts. Kristianne Kurner directs.

“American Hero” takes place in a sub sandwich shop, where “sandwich artists” are trained to produce the product – in 20 seconds or less – on a three-person assembly line.  

This particular shop is part of a chain that remains unnamed, but there’s a quote at the beginning of the script from an actual Quiznos franchisee which begins “Quiznos has killed me” and ends with the statement that he killed himself in 2007.

In the red, white and blue shop in question, new franchisee Bob (Kamel Haddad), of indeterminate Middle-Eastern origin, hires his crew: Sheri (Cecilia Harchegani), 18, awkward, nervous and unsure, and working a second McJob to make ends meet; Ted (Dallas McLaughlin), a by-the-book MBA and former banker fallen on hard times, which have not made him give up on the American Dream – yet; and Jamie (Wendy Waddell), a sexpot single mom in tight pants and too much makeup, in a custody battle for her three kids.

First the “artists” are assigned jobs – baser, finisher or wrapper. Then they drill until they can turn out the product in time. This section is played strictly for laughs à la the “I Love Lucy” episode in the chocolate shop.

Then another sitcom element involving Ted and Jamie is tossed in, to raucous laughter from the audience, but this only serves to further distance the audience from any real engagement with the characters as people rather than types.

After the assembly-line operation is perfected comes Opening Day. Oddly enough, Bob doesn’t show up on that day or any day thereafter. The staff gamely continues turning out sandwiches until they start running out of stock.

What to do? They call every number they have and are told only “Stay open.” But how can they do that?

A little American ingenuity is in order, though not by the book. Will they step over the corporate line or toe that line and face the hungry hordes with no more than apologies?

I suspect “American Hero” wants to give us food (if not sandwiches) for thought, but Wohl is so determined to make us laugh (especially in the first half) that the serious elements are slighted. Tossing in a dream sequence with a character called “Sandwich” doesn’t really help.

Director Kristianne Kurner plays up the sitcom aspects, but there’s not much else she can do with this script that can’t decide whether it wants to be comedy or social commentary. It isn’t written well enough to do both.

These game actors do what they can with the material, but it can’t be easy. Harchegani’s Sheri, a portrait of the beaten down, gets to show a little gumption later and makes her character at least tolerable.

Waddell’s Jamie gets some funny lines and amusing actions late in the play, but McLaughlin’s Ted pretty much has to stick to the script of the corporate dog who has difficulty stepping outside the manual’s rules even though the world of this shop has collapsed.

Haddad plays Bob with all the nervous care of the immigrant trying to make a go of it. He also gets to play three other small roles, including that Sandwich.

“American Hero” means well, but doesn’t quite get the job done. It’s at least one rewrite away from a good play.

The details

“American Hero” plays through October 15, 2017 at New Village Arts, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad.

Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (760) 433-3245 or www.newvillagearts.org