Bess Wohl's American Hero, a Second Stage Uptown presentation at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, is an offbeat comedy which--like the big deal meals at fast-food shops like the one in the title--is tasty but not altogether satisfying. Even so, the author provides entertaining characters and some absurdly delightful humor along the way.
American Hero is one of those lower-ranked, ubiquitous toasted sandwich franchise restaurants that sprout up at shopping malls, noted for their special prime rib torpedo with creamy Alfredo sauce. ("Add triple bacon! Mmmm!!" say the wall menus.) A hapless immigrant franchisee (Daoud Heidami), with a thick, unplaceable accent, hires three desperate workers and teaches them the trade, reading line-by-line instructions out of a voluminous manual.
The sad sack workers engage in a funny scene as they practice manufacturing sandwiches in less than twenty seconds. After which the store opens; the owner unveils a "grand opening" sign, and within a day disappears altogether; and the sandwich crafters are left stranded. For reasons that are not quite clear and not quite convincing, they stay on--apparently nobody instructed them on how to lock up--as supplies dwindle and run out, leaving them with nothing to sell and presumably no paychecks.
The workers nevertheless stay at the sub shop, in their pert uniforms; otherwise there would be no more play, would there? American Hero, which starts out as a satiric look at fast food, turns into what might be termed something of a reverse Occupy Quiznos, with the little guys fighting corporate America. Wohl keeps it funny, even as logic departs.
Much of the amusement comes from the cast, under the direction of Leigh Silverman (of Chinglish and her current, impressive Tony-nominee, Violet). A mismatched trio they are, consisting of 18-year-old Sheri (Erin Wilhelmi), who works back-to-back shifts at two restaurants; 33-year-old Jamie (Ari Graynor), a divorcee with no prospects fighting a custody suit; and Ted (Jerry O'Connell), a newly-religious 43-year-old MBA who lost his white-collar existence in an employee sexual abuse case.
Graynor, of The Little Dog Laughed and The Performers, gives yet another droll performance as one of those "bad" girls. (Graynor is also the star of the CBS sitcom Bad Teacher, which premiered four weeks ago and was just cancelled). Mr. O'Connell--from Jerry Maguire, and as an 11-year-old one of the stars of the movie Stand by Me--does a sturdy job as a reformed wild guy who is nevertheless lookin' for action. Most interesting is Wilhelmi, recently seen in The Great God Pan and The Great Immensity. She is reminiscent of the young Julie Harris--she appears to be perfect casting for Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding, should anyone want to revive it--and handles her role with comic style.
The pieces of American Hero are somewhat too jagged to fit together, but as an offering in the modestly-priced Second Stage Uptown series it provides a pleasant comic diversion on the Upper West Side.
American Hero, by Bess Wohl, opened May 22, 2014 at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre