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Behind the counter, battling for humanity in ‘American Hero’

From left: Ari Graynor, James Waterston, and Erin Wilhelmi star as “sandwich artists” in “American Hero” at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Paul Fox

From left: Ari Graynor, James Waterston, and Erin Wilhelmi star as “sandwich artists” in “American Hero” at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

While Quiznos promotes pulled pork and Subway celebrates avocado season, Bess Wohl loads her “American Hero” with existential anguish.

The comedy, having its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 7, addresses corporate greed, the plight of the service worker, and the difficulty of attaining even the most basic form of the American Dream. And it does all that through the slightly surreal prism of a new toasted-subs franchise at a suburban strip mall in Anywhere, USA.

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“I am always interested in the collision between comedy and despair,” Wohl says.

Her main characters are three “sandwich artists” hired for the sub shop’s grand opening. Sheri (Erin Wilhelmi) is 18, socially awkward, and exhausted from her making-ends-meet night shift at a nearby El Taco. Jamie (Boston native Ari Graynor), 30-ish, is a hot mess with a bad temper. Ted (James Waterston), 40-ish, is an enthusiastic team player who nonetheless has slid down the career ladder.

They start out as not particularly adept students of the chain’s sandwich-making manual — “White or wheat or wrap or multigrain flatbread? . . . Enter condiments here!” — and end up fighting for their humanity. It’s subs, but it’s also Sartre, director Leigh Silverman says.

“There’s definitely an existential, ‘No Exit’ quality that runs through the entire play,” says Silverman, who also helmed a workshop of “American Hero” last summer at Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth. “It’s a hilarious play about four people at the absolute nadir of their lives.”

Omar Metwally plays that fourth central character — the immigrant franchise owner — as well as a hungry customer, an emissary from corporate HQ, and a giant talking sandwich in a dream sequence.

“The approach is very real, very straightforward, even though there are fantastical elements to this play,” Silverman says. “What makes the comedy work is not any shenanigans or shtick but the very honest approach. The more seriously these people take two ounces of cheese, the more we enjoy that.”

Wohl, who lives in New York, says the play began to take shape when she read news accounts of a sub shop whose franchisee disappeared, leaving the employees to fend for themselves. From that she began reading up on the phenomenon of angry franchisees and their corporate masters. A frustrating, hours-long telephone struggle with her bank’s customer service department kicked her writing into a higher gear.

The play’s sandwich artists are all affected to one degree or another by the economic downturn and the structural shifts in the American workplace. It’s also easy to see parallels to the Occupy movement in their ad hoc attempt to keep the shop open on their own terms.

“I think there is a sense right now of how do we return to something more human, and more homegrown, and fight back against the sort of dehumanizing effect of large corporations in the workplace,” Wohl says. “That was something I wanted to write about: How do you keep your individuality and humanity in this world that’s so full of rules? On the other hand, the rules being necessary for society to function, how do you find your creativity in these structures we all live in?”

There has been a certain amount of covert research in sub shops, says the playwright, who made the transition from acting to writing a few years ago. She never worked in a sub franchise herself, although she suspects her college-era stint at a Tex-Mex restaurant may be the subliminal source for El Taco.

Setting the play in a sub shop requires a mix of prop and real sandwiches, some of which get eaten.

“The food, the perishables, I feel horrible!” Wohl says. “We go through so many sandwiches. Leigh told me it’s not a very environmentally conscious play. There are all the plastic gloves we use. It’s funny: When you write something, you have to let your imagination run wild and not get hemmed in by all the logistics. And then you get into rehearsal and there are all the logistics.”

Silverman has staged the play so that the actors change the stage between scenes, including taking down and putting up the chairs as the restaurant opens and closes. And they’ve practiced making those subs.

“I think there’s great fun watching three completely desperate people taking the art of sandwich-making very seriously,” Silverman says. “But through the great craft of the play, it turns around, and you understand that making your own sandwich is a metaphor for reclaiming your life, trusting your instincts, finding your creativity, thinking outside the box. And that’s actually the great joy and payoff of the play.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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