The cheeses are stacked against the workers — oops, I mean "sandwich artists" — right from the start of "American Hero," the delicious dark comedy by Bess Wohl enjoying a dynamic regional premiere from Rep Stage.
For one thing, the latest location of a sub shop chain where these poor souls have ended up is the back alley of the food court at a faceless mall. It will be hard enough for anyone to find the place. Those who do show up are supposed to find a whole mess of possible sandwich options made by the employees "in under 20 seconds or less" — the perfectly inane instruction from the corporate manual.
Clutching that manual as the play opens is nervous franchise owner Bob (Gary-Kayi Fletcher), a recent immigrant who was someone of distinction in his native country, but has to start all over in this one.
With the hiring of timid 18-year-old Sheri (Liliana Evans), Bob completes the assembling of a crew. The team also includes brash 30-something Jamie (Megan Anderson), a single mom with custody issues; and the slightly older, married, recently downsized white-collar professional Ted (Eric M. Messner).
Stopwatch in hand, Bob is determined to train this sad staff in the art of timely food service. But the clock has already run out.
It's 2008, and the ingredients of the Great Recession bubble beneath the surface of the economy. Wohl captures the whole edgy mood of that period — heck, today's world, too — as she spins a plot that puts genuine faces on folks with limited options, unlimited troubles.
To be sure, a fair amount of "American Hero" covers familiar sitcom territory, with some of the situations and some of the comedy feeling forced, starting with Bob's unexplained disappearance right before the shop's grand opening.
But the characters all have something to say about life on the low end of the economic scale, about what it means to have your hopes for the future hinging on the sheer mundanity of white-or-wheat-and-do-you-want-to-make-that-a-combo.
Amid the laughs — and there are plenty in this 90-minute work — Wohl dishes out a compact fable about coping, dreaming, taking chances and, above all, staying connected to the little things that can keep us human and sane. When the employees take the shop into their own hands, it's an act that resonates with good old-fashioned American gumption.
Director Suzanne Beal keeps her terrific cast moving nimbly all over the spot-on set by James Fouchard — the decor includes a slogan-covered wall ("Yummm!" "Wow!" and "Hey, are you ready?") as tasteless as you imagine the sandwiches to be.
Anderson chews some of that scenery, along with ever-present gum, in a colorful performance as Jamie, a woman who super-sized her innate cynicism some time ago. Of course, there's a heart underneath, and Anderson reveals it deftly.
She and Messner, one of her colleagues in Everyman Theatre's recent production of "Wait Until Dark," work just as smoothly together here. Messner is great at showing how deeply Ted absorbed corporate ways before being tossed out, and at making the character's defining act of courage plausible (there really is an American hero in this play).
Evans does admirable work as Sheri, who works two jobs just to care for an ailing parent and hardly has any energy to spare when the sub shop's future is threatened.
In addition to Bob, Fletcher's multiple roles include that of an unsuspecting customer and an executive from corporate headquarters (a rogue shop is bound to attract attention at the top eventually). But he shines most memorably as a wry sandwich in a dream sequence.
That sequence is especially notable for the way it caps the show's recurring use of the classic '60s song "The Girl from Ipanema," which pops up in just about every conceivable arrangement. Somehow, it's the perfect musical touch.
If you go
"American Hero" runs through Nov. 20 at Rep Stage, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 443-518-1500, or go to repstage.org.