Sub-standard hero at the food court

Artists Rep's fast-food comedy "American Hero" is deftly produced and performed, but the script sandwich holds more than the mayo

Everybody’s gotta eat. And (with the possible exception of advanced Buddhist practitioners) everyone hungers for something. Those may or may not be related.

Sometimes that first truth leads you to settle for what’s at hand, the convenient and familiar — for instance, a fast-food sandwich. You probably can count on the thing to conform to some basic standards, to have a calculatedly appealing combination of salt and fat and such, to fill your tummy for awhile. But is it really satisfying?

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

For those who consume theater as sustenance, that sub sandwich has a surprising counterpart in American Hero, the latest production on the boards at the venerable Artists Repertory Theatre. Bess Wohl’s one-act comedy serves up enough basic entertainment value to get you through a brief evening — a handful of skillful performances and a lot of easy laughs tucked into a readily recognizable and digestible form.  But if you’re feeling the need of some nourishing human insight, emotional resonance, trenchant social thinking or refined aesthetic pleasure, you might find yourself uttering some theatergoers version of that old TV-ad lament, “Wow. I could’ve had a V-8!”

Like pretty much all fast food, American Hero promises more than it delivers. The title isn’t such a bad pun, really; it places us effectively in the terrain — a typical sub sandwich outlet, this one newly placed in the foot-traffic-forsaken end of a middle-American mall — and alludes to a thematic interest in the current state of “the American dream,” the striving of modern salt-of-the-earth folks seeking just to get by before they can move on to getting ahead. Determining exactly who or what is the hero here, or what heroism means for Wohl, however, isn’t so easy. Considering the story’s ultimately dispiriting arc, perhaps the phrase is meant as a bitterly ironic reference to anyone who works for a living.

The set-up is simple and realistic, if only partly plausible. Bob is a new franchisee who quickly hires and trains three employees for his shop (just three, who have to work as a team — apparently the place is open only for a single shift each day). But Bob doesn’t show up for opening day and makes only one brief, panicky appearance thereafter before disappearing altogether. The ill-matched underlings are left to figure out operations, procurement and so on by themselves, desperate to keep even these meager jobs in order to make ends “meat and cheese.”

Within this framework, Wohl’s way with one-liners delivers good and plentiful dollops of sit-com-style humor, and the contrasting character types are given a strong specificity by the actors. Mueen Jahan makes Bob a bit of a regrettable South Asian stereotype, with his bouncing consonants, benign grin and a silly head-waggling habit, but he’s solid in that and a few other small roles. Emily Eisele moves convincingly between mousiness and gumption as the young Sheri. Artists Rep resident artist Val Landrum chews some scenery in a good way as the sassy, sour struggling single mom Jamie. And Gavin Hoffman does especially fine work as Ted, a fallen corporate go-getter full of fatuous bromides, anxious ambition and tightly restrained self-loathing.

The relentlessly cheery theme song that highlights Jen Raynak’s sound design is a subtly effective touch, and apart from one egregiously awkward fight-scene moment (Note: a character can’t run straight into a weapon and then credibly claim he’s been assaulted), director Shawn Lee has marshalled a pleasingly professional production all around.

Mueen Jahan, Val Landrum, Gavin Hoffman, Emily Eisele: hustling for a buck. Photo: Owen Carey

Mueen Jahan, Val Landrum, Gavin Hoffman, Emily Eisele: hustling for a buck. Photo: Owen Carey

And yet, this feels like the emptiest batch of calories this great Portland theater has served up in quite awhile. Frankly, I’m mystified at how this play got through the season-planning process.
As games as the performances here are, they can’t turn Wohls’ under-drawn characters into real people rather than mere types (the cheap vixen, the hypocrite…) and symbols (varieties of familial obligation, directions of economic/class mobility…). As funny as a lot of the lines are — such as when Sheri announces that she’s conserving her energy for her other job at “the taco place, which is where my real passion lies” — they seldom add anything to our understanding of the characters and their experiences, as individuals or as representatives of something more. In fact, lots of the humor comes out of a casual-sex subplot that appears to have no point other than to gin up a little co-worker conflict.

The tone is inconsistent, with bits of absurd jargon sprinkled here and there but adding nothing fresh, and even a ridiculous dream sequence serving the purpose of being a ridiculous dream sequence. Scenes feel shapeless, sometimes ending abruptly, other times wandering aimlessly through excess verbiage.

Worst of all, despite the ostensible theme of the innate dignity of the well-intentioned worker, Wohl shows little compassion for or true understanding of these characters. The underlings are admirably scrappy, but little else, and what passes for a big revelation is that the suits from the corporate office are just as beleaguered and dissatisfied. Surprise — bosses are people, too!
Interestingly, on the opening weekend of American Hero, you wouldn’t have had to travel far at all to find a much more trenchant look at the disquieting nexus of work and dreams, systemic inequities and soul-sapping disappointments. That was in Trevor, Nick Jones’ tragi-comic play about a pet chimpanzee, which was playing upstairs on Artists Rep’s Morrison Street stage. (Trevor closed on Sunday.)

That is to say, the theme of American Hero was addressed with greater clarity and provocative flair in a play that really was about something else entirely!

Perhaps I’ll just go eat a banana.


American Hero continues through October 30 at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.


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