|Paul Stout, Devon deGroot & Laura Espino|
Day-by-day, the slices of turkey, pastrami, and cheddar dwindle away. Already there are no more chips and no more Dr. Pepper. But at Toasty Subs that just recently celebrated its grand opening, the three “sandwich artists” continue to spread what mustard is left on the few sourdough and wheat buns remaining, hoping that the weeks-absent owner soon returns to resupply the “Home of the Tasty Torpedo” and to pay them their $7.25 per hour minimum wage.
As conditions worsen, they discover a bit of entrepreneurial ingenuity and a lot about teamwork while also providing us with many laughs in Bess Wohl’s dark comedy about what it is like in today’s economy to be at the bottom of the ladder, barely hanging on. The Custom Made Theatre Co. presents a pleasantly entertaining American Hero – a mixture of quirky, satirical, and bizarre – that in the end is a play where the pathos of the three employees we meet gives us pause about how many millions of others live lives not that different from theirs in a corporate America just as unresponsive to employee needs as is the offices of Tasty Subs.
|Devon deGroot & David Boyll|
Back on the first day of the job, owner Bob reads from a manual meticulously detailed instructions in his overly loud, heavy accent about how to run a Tasty Sub — information he clearly is reading for the first time. Sheri – a late-teen who works until 4 a.m. at a local tacoria before showing up here at 7 (catching only a few winks in her car in between) — is barely awake and totally unaware of what Bob is saying. Thirty-three-year-old Jamie – single mom with three kids barely holding onto their custody — could not look more bored as she picks at the table’s edge with her fingernail. On the other hand, forty something Ted – an MBA laid off after twenty years in a Bank of American corporate job — is diligently taking notes, hanging on with eager nods and big smiles to every word Bob reads, often echoing Bob’s read words in seemingly delighted agreement about the required one-quarter-inch slice restriction on all peppers.
|Devon deGroot, Laura Espino & Paul Stout|
Things get a little more dicey when the team of three – now divided into the highly differentiated roles of ‘baser’ (Sheri), ‘finisher’ (Ted), and ‘wrapper’ (Jamie) – practice with increasing duress under the demanding stop-watch of Bob how to create one of their sandwich delicacies in twenty seconds or less. (If any Subway franchise starts coming come to mind, there is be no doubt of the parallel in the recreation of such a shop that Heather Kenyon has so cleverly and accurately designed – of course using other color schemes and sandwich names/pictures.)
Just as the team begins to get into the swing of things, their boss Bob disappears, only to appear one more time to take a call in the backroom, shouting in some foreign tongue that leads Ted to want to call the Feds about Bob’s being a possible terrorist. Calmer voices prevail from the other two, with their deciding to call instead ‘corporate,’ since now they are concerned how to reorder supplies, how to get paid, and even how to set the required burglar alarm when they leave at night.
Those calls, which in time mount to over one hundred, get them nowhere. It is then when desperation and near-panic for three who have little-to-no other chance for any kind of other employment realize that while they can no longer serve the highly popular steak subs or even turkey on rye, they can now serve PB&J, Sheri’s secret recipe for tuna salad, or even Ted’s wife’s leftover meatloaf. And suddenly these three who came in with little in common are now a tight-knit team, high-fiving each other’s inventiveness and the shop’s new life.
Each of the actors playing the three brings personalities that are both weirdly out-of-sorts and yet totally relatable and even believable. Sheri (Devon deGroot) is all teen in her ability to be all over the emotional rollercoaster in just a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. She can go from being super eager in her job as ‘baser’ to ask ‘white or wheat’ with much sincerity to being ready to bolt in her taco-job, straw hat the moment her shift is over, no matter what crisis is occurring in that minute. Sheri is a source of new ideas for the team to try, being a teen who could care less for the corporate manual’s requirements that Ted so likes to quote. She also discovers that while she stated up front “I’m not really here to make friends,” Ted and Jamie are just the friends maybe she needs now in her all-work life.
Laura Espino is also a configuration of many opposing factors as Jamie. On the one hand, she can be callous, cynical, and critical – and also calculating on how to woo the married Ted to an after-work tryst, telling a shocked Sheri that wanting to have sex with Ted is “like the Everest thing … because it’s there.” On the other, Jamie becomes a trooper on the team, even shop-lifting ‘Snicker-ettes’ as a special treat for her fellow teammates who are never supposed to taste the sub shop’s own offerings. Jamie also has a vulnerable side that reluctantly emerges — one related to a kid who only wants a $79.99 bike for his birthday. It is that $79.99 that becomes a driving motivator for her actions on this tight-knit team.
In many ways, Ted is the saddest of the three who are all barely hanging on to what little economic security this job brings. Paul Stout’s Ted is trying so hard in every way to like this job, to see it as a good next step in a career that has imploded on him due to corporate downsizing, and to ready himself maybe to climb once again a corporate ladder – even that of Tasty Sub. With a mouth that often opens to cavernous proportions, he has fascinated reactions of awe to sub shop details that the other two ignore or half-sleep through. He sometimes has moves of a cheerleader in his mammoth efforts to be excited, but he also becomes “not stressed” but “suicidal” as things start falling apart in his newfound job (the only one his MBA has afforded him after months of looking). Mr. Stout becomes an Every Person for all the middle aged folk who find their American dream suddenly become a nightmare due to some decision somewhere on corporate high where cutting a few thousand people will next quarter please Wall Street.
|Devon deGroot & David Boyll|
David Boyll is not only the elusive shop owner Bob, he plays other roles from a highly upset customer who only wants his bargain meal that is no longer available to a Sandwich Fairy that is a figment of a bone-tired Sheri’s dream world. He is also Gregory, a member of Tasty World’s corporate office in Denver who finally shows up at what he now calls “a franchise that has gone rogue.” For each of these, Mr. Boyll brings mixtures of funny fantasy and hard reality.
Allie Moss directs this eager cast with a flow that makes good use of frequent scene shifts to use the interim, silent looks and actions of those still on a dimmed stage as a part of the story-telling and character development. To add to the aforementioned authentic-looking sub shop structure, Stephanie Dittbern has gone to the properties kitchen to create an array of deli meat, sliced cheese, and completed sandwich offerings. Ericka Mae Martin’s costumes wonderfully reflect the characters’ backgrounds and personalities while Lynessa Flowers and Brittany Mellerson respectively complete the sub shops looks and sounds with appropriate sound and lighting designs.
Bess Wohl’s American Hero, as produced by this Custom Made team of director, actors and production staff, is an evening of gentle laughter and occasional out-loud guffaws that does not particularly plow a lot of new ground, theatrically or thematically, but does certainly entertain while also reminding us what it looks and feels like – even from a comedic lens – to be barely making it on so many dimensions on a day-to-day basis. Whether a teen now on her own with only a car as a bedroom, a single mom on the verge of losing her kids, or a once successful husband/father who no longer can provide for his family, the one need that is common for all three is a lifeline – no matter how thin — of a job, any job … even that of a “sandwich artist.”
Rating: 3.5 E
American Herocontinues through April 6, 2019, at The Custom Made Theatre Co., at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).
Photo Credits: Jay Yamada
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