American Hero by Bess Wohl (2013): an analysis for production

“What happens to a dream deferred? … Does it stink like rotten meat? … Or does it explode?” from Harlem by Langston Hughes

This is NOT “A Raisin in the Sun.” The American Hero of the title is a sandwich. This Hero appears but once in a dream. Otherwise our characters, symbols of the American dream deferred, all find this Hero equally ironic and elusive. It is a brilliant and convenient choice that a black comedy (no pun on Langston Hughes) about the current American economic condition unifies its action in a thinly veiled “toasty sub” sandwich franchise, with three “sandwich artists” abandoned by both their owner and corporate. The literal meat in American Hero never rots; it just runs out leaving the characters adrift and improvising. A farce by definition is “a light dramatic composition marked by broadly satirical comedy and improbable plot (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/farce, 3/23/2015 5:58 PM).” Bess Wohl’s dialogue is honest, economical and prosaic. American Hero is, on many levels, an anti-farce: an acutely satirical comedy, with three ordinary people (no mayors, cops, or opera singers) in a probable situation, who reveal heavy truths.

Sherry: But I just want to like, do my job here and not get fired with the least amount of energy possible so I can have energy left over for the taco place, which is where my real passion lies.

Ted: But what about school or—

Sherry: I’m 18 and anyway, I am not, you know—

Ted: What?

Sheri: Smart.

Equally depressing (recessing?), the “Ted” in previous dialogue is a corporate casualty with an MBA. Jamie, the third protagonist is a wise-cracking vixen with her own sad secret who abuses what she thinks is her only power, sexuality. The antagonists of Hero turn out to be the unseen peddlers of “The American Dream,” who feign to reward ingenuity and industry but instead sacrifice “heroes” in the pursuit of profit.

Jamie:   No, seriously, this is kind of like a dream come true. Ever since I was a little girl I just love sliced meats.

Ted:       Right, well, good for you.

Jamie:   Plus like a month ago, I got fucking fired from Supercuts. You know the one of the Fairview Mall?

Ted:       Sure, yeah, I’ve been there.

Jamie:   Did they give you that haircut?

Ted:       Oh. Actually, yeah, I think so.

Jamie:   Fucking Darlene. Anyway, they said I was stealing mousse. Allegedly.

Ted:       The hair product?

Jamie:   The animal. So yeah, they were pissed, but for like six weeks, my hair had incredible volume and lift.

Provenance:

Bess Wohl:

  • Winner of the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival.
  • Developed television pilots for both networks and cable.
  • BA: English: Harvard University, Magna Cum Laude,
  • MFA: Acting: Yale School of Drama.
  • Rona Jaffe Writing Prize
  • Macdowell Fellowship
  • Plays written include: Cats Talk Back, In, Touched, Barcelona, American Hero

(imdb.com, playpenn.org/our-playwrights)

Play:

Williamstown, NYC, Boston

Production requirements: Reasonable, but may be economically challenging for small theatrical companies. The cast is 4 or 7 (2 or 5m, 2F) with characters aged 18-40. One male actor, who should pass as North African or Southeast Asian, played all supporting parts in listed productions. The setting is a new, very realistic fast-food sandwich franchise. This must be complete with real food, a working soda machine, prep station/counter, new matching tables and chairs, and large highly stylized possibly photographic poster/advertisements. It must look like a brand new Quizno’s™ or Subway™. Action is divided into 12 scenes with no assigned act break. Running time for the New York production was 1 hour and 30 minutes (The New York Times, 2014). Most costumes are contemporary and simple (street clothes, suit with breakaway tear, uniforms…and an anthropomorphic sandwich). Royalties: $100 per performance.

Censorial concerns: “Fuck”: Several instances. “Shit”: occasionally (3?). A sexual liaison replete with commensurate vocalizations begins onstage as lights fade and the scene changes (no nudity).

Recommendation: STRONG. The playwright is female and American. The setting is any medium city to suburb large enough to have several of the same chain sandwich shop and is NOT (necessarily) NEW YORK!!!! The timely themes of corporate greed, brand inanity, underemployment, and economic desperation resonate as good, or better, than many of the works recently reviewed on this blog. The biting comedy will entertain, motivate and enlighten audiences. The acting parts are rewarding: round, layered, and take strong character and relationship work. If your theatre can get their hands on some of the restaurant supplies from a recently closed establishment, and your board can cover their ears for the F-bomb, it’s worth the gamble.

http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5057

Available for lending from Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois

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