Three “sandwich artists” with very different lives walk into a franchise. What happens? Unfortunately the answer is…not much. American Hero, a play by Bess Wohl currently being presented by the IAMA Theatre Company in a guest production at the Pasadena Playhouse, is a comedy about working class America, but focuses on a microcosm that ultimately fails to prove a point.
At the top of the show, Bob (Rodney To), an immigrant and new franchise owner of a Subway-esque sandwich shop in the mall, is hiring his staff. He knows extremely little about the actual business of making and selling sandwiches, but with the help of step-by-step corporate-provided manuals he assembles a dysfunctional team of three sandwich artists and trains them to make specials such as prime rib and southwestern chicken in under 20 seconds via a highly structured assembly line.
The three employees each need the job for different reasons. Sheri (Laura Mann) is young and awkward—how young is never specified, but it’s implied she’s supposed to be freshly out of high school. She has resigned herself to an unambitious life and is just looking to supplement the income she already makes working nights at the El Taco on the other side of the mall, income she needs to help support her ill father. Ted (Graham Outerbridge) is in his 40s, has an MBA, and until recently had a fancy job at the corporate offices of Bank of America—a fact he reminds everyone about at every opportunity—but lost his job for less-than-sympathetic reasons he eventually reveals. He has a wife and kids at home, but that doesn’t stop him from lusting after Jamie (Anna Lamadrid), a single mom in the midst of a custody battle who was recently fired from SuperCuts for stealing mousse. She simply needed somewhere that wouldn’t check references too closely, and Bob was indifferent enough to turn a blind eye.
Problem is, Bob never shows up to his own grand opening, and then practically never does again—he disappears, leaving his new underlings baffled. Soon the store is nearly out of all sandwich supplies, and the distributors refuse to deliver because Bob defaulted on the payments. The employees try to contact corporate but end up stuck in an endless red tape phone maze of unhelpful people at the regional office who encourage them to just “stay open.” Taking this advice to heart, they resort to increasingly unconventional means to do so, eventually selling homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just so they can make payroll.
As the title would indicate, American Hero seems to be circling an idea about how the struggles of the employees at this franchise represent a modern, recession-era iteration of the American Dream, but this point never lands successfully. Instead, it’s just a play about three people making sandwiches, and the stakes are so low it is difficult to care if they succeed. Jamie’s character has the highest stakes, but an erratic and unearned incident towards the end of the show makes her nearly impossible to root for. Perhaps if Sheri didn’t already have another job and if Ted didn’t openly admit his primary motivation for working is to have a reason to escape his family during the day it would be easier to care about their continued employment, but these characters do themselves no favors. It would be easier to root for likable people facing potential unemployment, but with the exception of Sheri, they are more obnoxious than sympathetic. And even Sheri is underdeveloped—her home situation with her father is brought up and then never mentioned again, which feels like a missed opportunity. The humor is also a bit over the top—in one sequence, Sheri has a dream about a talking sandwich (also played by To) that inspires her to think outside the box in terms of ways to keep the store open, but it feels incongruous with the tone of the rest of the show.
Directed by James Eckhouse, the action unfolds on a snazzy and constantly evolving set by Justin Huen, with changing signage helping to show passage of time and the constantly devolving state of the franchise. The story comes closest to hitting the right note in the moments when the characters are forced to put aside their differences and work together so they can all continue to get paid—anyone who has ever survived a miserable job by relying on in-the-trenches bonding with co-workers will relate to the moment when they sing along to Katy Perry’s “Roar” in an attempt to pick themselves up. And in case you ever start to forget about the importance of teamwork in such situations, there’s a cheeky sign on the wall behind the counter to remind you. An eleventh hour interaction with corporate provides some perspective on the situation for both the characters and the audience, but still only scratches the surface of making a meaningful point about the frustrations of bureaucracy and the plight of the working class. The story just feels too slight to sustain an entire play—but it will definitely make you leave the theater craving a sandwich.
American Hero runs at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 21st. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased here.