Left to right: Cecilia Harchegani, Dallas McLaughlin and Wendy Waddell in "American Hero." Photo by Daren Scott
There’s nothing like listing “sandwich artist” to burnish one’s resume, right? But for Sheri, Ted and Jamie, three worker bees at an in-mall sandwich shop in Somewhere, U.S.A., it’s not about resumes – it’s about living paycheck to paycheck while retaining if they can at least a slice of dignity. When it looks like the sandwich shop won’t be able to, through no fault of Sheri, Ted and Jamie’s, cut the mustard, Bess Wohl’s comedy “American Hero” turns existential. Its principals’ internal questions beckon: Why must awkward teen Sheri toil in not just one dehumanizing fast-food joint, but two? (She also works at a taco shop in the same mall.) How could middle-aged Ted, a casualty of corporate downsizing at Bank of America and a possessor of an MBA, be reduced to slapping two pieces of bread together? What did Jamie do to deserve having to wear a ridiculous vest and visor just to keep from losing custody of her kids?
But the truth is, “American Hero” is existential lite. Its plastic-gloved, assembly line trio may be mired in cringe-worthy circumstances ripe for pathos, but Wohl’s 2013 one-act is played largely for laughs. This is the case at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad, Director Kristianne Kurner and a game ensemble of four (Cecillia Harchegani, Dallas McLaughlin, Wendy Waddell and Kamel Haddad) emphasize the play’s physical and visual comedy, which are its definite strengths. The script’s narrative dead spots stem from its taxed flirtations with sobriety. While playwright Wohl may have intended otherwise, Chaplin-esque commentary on the dehumanization of the American worker (think “Modern Times”) this is not.
That distinction aside, “American Hero” is frequently funny during its 90 minutes. Inhabiting the story’s most outlandish character, Waddell as Jamie brassily lets insults and profanities fly with equal ferocity and velocity. Often in their line of fire is Ted, whom McLaughlin makes the most officious but also the most sympathetic of the hapless sandwich artists. (In their task-defined roles, he’s the “finisher,” Jamie is the “wrapper,” and Sheri is the “baser.”) As for Sheri, Harchegani turns in a promising debut at New Village Arts in a low-key part that in lesser hands could be totally upstaged by the two broader characters behind the sandwich counter. Another newcomer to New Village Arts productions, Haddad rounds out the ensemble, playing four way over-the-top roles, including a costume-wearing talking sandwich – that’s not a misprint.
The ambient touches at New Village contribute to the fun – or to the surrealism of the play, depending on your perspective. Kristen Flores’ sandwich-shop set boasts the requisite enforced sterility and cheerfulness of such places in its bright colors and serviceable furniture. Signage including “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sandwiches” speaks to the clueless franchise approach to “humor” and relatability. The transition music between scenes or in significant moments leans heavily on classic rock, though there are snippets that smack of retro lounge records, and, of all things, there’s “The Girl from Ipanema.” A little samba with your sandwich, sir? (Review originally published 9/25/17 in the San Diego Union-Tribune.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.