WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Theatre Festival kicked off in western Massachusetts Thursday with the world premiere of a dramatic comedy that celebrates the glorious power of the sandwich. Playwright Bess Wohl’s “American Hero” tells the story of three employees at a new sub franchise and the lengths they go to hold on to their jobs.
At a recent rehearsal I found out to why the dramedy is as much about the great American sandwich as it is about the American Dream.
'Tragic To Them — And Hilarious To Us'
Before sinking their teeth into a scene inside a rehearsal room transformed into a sub shop, director Leigh Silverman and her cast couldn't stop laughing about luncheon meats and condiments.
“Honey mustard!" actress Erin Wilhelmi exclaimed with a laugh.
During a break I asked Silverman: What’s so funny about sandwiches?
"Well it's not that sandwiches are funny," she said, "it's that the people who make those sandwiches are serious."
The people she was referring to are the main characters in “American Hero.” They took jobs at the new sub franchise because — like so many Americans — they were desperate for work.
"We meet these four characters at the absolute nadir of their life," Silverman said, "and so everything that happens to them is so tragic to them — and hilarious to us."
Audiences are introduced to the world of this play through the regulations set down by the franchise corporation. In the second scene the franchise owner grips a binder as he struggles to assign his three new employees their titles: baser, finisher and wrapper. His plague of indecision last for a while. Then in an unidentified accent the boss lays down a pretty extreme rule:
"Every sandwich must be completed in under 20 seconds or less," he dictates.
Ted, once a Bank of America employee and now a "finisher," breaks in, "Bob, how is that possible if…"
"Every sandwich must be completed in under 20 seconds or less," the manager retorts loudly.
When he's questioned again, Bob loudly screams, "Every sandwich must be completed in under 20 seconds or less!"
The new franchise owner needs to orient his three new employees — or “sandwich artists,” as he calls them. Ted's coworkers are Sheri and Jamie.
"My character is a woman who was formerly a cosmetologist," Boston actress Ari Graynor explained to me, "and was fired from a Supercuts for — as she says — allegedly stealing mousse."
The character description in the "American Hero" script describes Jamie as "30ish. Hot. Gum Snapping. Sexy miniskirts. Glittery eye shadow. Full of rage."
"This is certainly not her passion," Graynor continued, saying her and her fellow sandwich artists "have taken these jobs because they absolutely had to, they couldn’t find anything else. You find out later I have children, and a custody battle."
Then with a laugh she added, "And it’s a comedy!"
And Graynor shared a favorite line: "Advance me some ham."
"I don't what it is about ham," she mused, "but it just wouldn't be the same if it were 'Advance me some turkey.' "
Sandwich As Metaphor
But together with slices of bread, and caressed by lettuce and mayo, the various cold cut-based combinations are transformed into more serious symbols of the American Dream.
Playwright Wohl said she was inspired by news stories about the exploitation of franchise workers and franchisees. The writer also took other cues from reality, creating dialogue from lines of copy in a manual used by a real sub chain.
"I was really interested in how people exist in these very structured worlds of, 'You can only put three ounces of meat on the sandwich; you can only put two ounces of cheese,' and how we sort of find our own voice, and our own creativity, within the rules," she said.
In the play Bob the owner/manager reads from his manual, telling his employees what the ideal sandwich artists does:
He must add onions, if requested, which must be no longer than two inches and 1/8th inch thick. He must add tomatoes if requested, which must be no more than 1/6th inch thick.
Wohl told me the sandwich serves as metaphor throughout her play.
"It's survival. In a way it's life, it's sustenance, you know, it's a meal," she said. "And they're all talking about, how are we going to survive? How are we going to survive? Especially in this economic climate. So I think being able to have your sandwich sort of to me is about being able to provide for yourself."
Like a good sandwich this play has many layers. Wohl said it’s about small businesses and mom-and-pop shops evaporating in the face of an increasingly homogenous world. Also it's about the conflict between the worker and corporate America. And it illuminates a larger sense of betrayal many Americans feel in the wake of the recession.
When the fictitious manager mysteriously flees the shop in “American Hero,” the employees are left to their own devices. And they stay because they need the work. And while the corporation wants the workers to keep the shop running, it does nothing to help them out. As in works by Chekhov and Kafka, the workers call and call on the telephone, but they never actually reach a human being.
"In the same way that these people in this sub shop feel like they're been abandoned by the corporation that owns the sub shop, there's this sense of all of us having been abandoned by whatever power is supposed to be looking out for us," Wohl said.
In one scene one of the characters says, "We're all alone." For the play's author, one of the questions is: "Are we all alone in the universe?"
But on the most intimate, human level, Wohl believes the journey her characters take through "American Hero" teaches them to make their own sandwiches — the way they want to.
Actress Graynor told me she appreciates the play’s message.
"Even though there are no clear answers — we don’t all ride off into the sunset eating lobster rolls or anything — but there is something to be said about being free in a moment and being connected to other people," she said. "And you have no idea what’s coming next, so you take a bite of that sandwich when you can."
“American Hero” runs through July 7 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
This program aired on June 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.