'American Hero': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Comically tasty at times, but not quite substantial enough.

Three sub shop employees are left to fend for themselves in Bess Wohl's dark comedy.

A subway shop franchise becomes a microcosm of recession-era America in Bess Wohl’s dark comedy receiving its New York premiere courtesy of off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre. Depicting the travails of a trio of hapless minimum-wage employees who find themselves on their own when their store manager abruptly abandons his responsibilities, American Hero never quite lives up to its tasty premise, although it delivers some mild chuckles along the way.

Learning the intricacies of making “Toasty Torpedoes” are mild-mannered, young Sheri (Erin Wilhelmi), who makes ends meet by working yet another low-level job at nights; sexy, outgoing Jamie (Ari Graynor, currently starring in CBS’s Bad Teacher), a divorced mother in the throes of a nasty custody battle for her three children; and Ted (Jerry O’Connell), a former successful banking executive who, before landing the menial gig, was unemployed for nearly a year.

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Store manager Bob (Daoud Heidami), who was a dermatologist in his native Egypt, promptly assigns them their respective duties of being a “baser,” “finisher” and “wrapper” of the subs, which need to be prepared in fewer than 20 seconds. But soon after their initial lesson, he mysteriously disappears, leaving the trio to fend for themselves even as their supplies of bread, meat and cheese dwindles to almost nothing.

They soon resort to makeshift methods using their own supplies, making tuna fish and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches in lieu of the usual franchise menu. This leads to the inevitable comic complications, including an altercation with a customer disgruntled at not being able to order his desired prime rib sandwich on sourdough bread.

The workers’ personal dynamics also become complicated, with man-eater Jamie promptly seducing Ted despite his fervent desire to abandon his womanizing ways and stay true to his marriage vows. Asked by Sheri why she did it, Jamie explains, “It’s an Everest thing … because it’s there.”

The vision of corporate America falling apart at the seams becomes more evident with the arrival of the company’s franchise representative (Heidami again) who, instead of chastising the employees for going rogue, actually praises them for their initiative.

It’s a slim, absurdist conceit that doesn’t manage to sustain the play’s 90-minute running time. Director Leigh Silverman (a current Tony Award nominee for Broadway’s Violet) infuses the production with a precise attention to detail, from the depiction of the workers’ daily mundane activities to Dane Laffrey’s ultra-realistic set design to the musical underscoring that includes Muzak versions of such songs as “Up Where We Belong” and “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” But neither the characterizations nor the situations are provocative enough to give this slight work the satirical heft it needs. Despite the fine comedic performances -- Wilhelmi is a particular delight as the innocent, eager beaver Sheri -- American Hero just doesn’t have enough meat.

Cast: Ari Graynor, Daoud Heidami, Jerry O’Connell, Erin Wilhelmi

Playwright: Bess Wohl

Director: Leigh Silverman

Presented by the Second Stage Theatre

Set designer: Dane Laffrey

Costume designer: Clint Ramos

Lighting designer: Jen Schriever

Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff

Presented by Second Stage Theatre

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