“American Hero” at Custom Made Theatre Co.

“”American Hero” at the Custom Made Theatre Co.

Carol Benet

The Custom Made Theatre may be the success story of the small Bay Area companies, of which there are many. They are giving the larger theaters, especially the money-spending and not so interesting ones like A.C.T., a run for their money.

It performs in a 99 seat theater upstairs at 533 Sutter near Union Square in a space where the now wildly successful SF Playhouse started.  It shares the building with other theaters. Currently the Custom MadeTheatre has a hit on its stage.

Bess Wohl’s “American Hero” is about four characters involved in a failing strip-mall sandwich shop that is part of a national chain.  The problems of franchises in this country are exposed here.  Owners, often unwitting foreigners, put down hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy in.  And in this play, “corporate” is unresponsive to the employees’s  complaints or even their basic  questions.  They are put on hold when they call the help number.  The crew here has problems when their suppliers cut them off if their owners fall into debt. At the same time corporate requires them to buy their overpriced goods.   These facts are part of the general franchise story, one  that in this play borders on the real.  On writing the play, award winning author Bess Wohl  was well aware of the  story of the heartless Long Beach  Quiznos’ disaster where the failing owner committed suicide in the shop’s bathroom in 2006 when his contract was cut off by corporate.

Beth Wohl creates a real situation where the new owner Bob (David Boyll)  reads from the chain’s corporate manual to give the three new employees instruction from it.  Bob is an immigrant from the Mid-East  but he lets them all know that in his own country he was a doctor —a dermatologist. He has spot-on accent thanks to help from dialect coach Christine Adaire.  Of the three employees Sheri  (Devon de Groot) is a not too bright but pretty young lady who keeps falling asleep during the lecture because she has a second job at a taco place during the night and she can only catch a few winks in between jobs to sleep in her car. Jamie (Laura Espino) is a sexy bombshell with a foul mouth and a lot of attitude. Ted (Paul Stout) is a laid off MBA who takes the job just to put food on the table for his wife and two kids.  They all listen to Bob read. but often sneer at the obvious and sometimes unclear rules such as ”can’t eat inventory”, “no open sores  or wounds” “employees must bath”.  These are just a few of them.

When they get to the company jargon that defines their jobs: “ baste-er, finisher, wrapper” they question the usage.  What’s the difference between the last two?  It doesn’t make sense to them (finisher/wrapper) but that is corporate speak.  There are so many laughs in this show that you almost forget their sad situation.  Each of the characters has a story and their confrontation with the world of franchise is pathetic.

Boyll plays other roles besides the often absent owner.  He is a customer, a representative from corporate and a figure from Sheri’s sleep-deprived dream when he comes in dressed as a colorful sandwich.  This play is hysterical and even as sad as these people are without any hope in this economy, you go away laughing and feeling good.  I can’t figure out why it is a feel-good production  Maybe because it has so many talented theatre professionals or that the script is so smart hat you can’t help but smile thinking of all the clever stage business afterwords.   We do live in a theater rich Bay Area.  Watch for the small theaters here.

Director Allie Moss has brought out every nuance in the script.  Heather Kenyon’s set design is perfect in its strip-mall sandwich shop mode where little by little the business fails and then strangely revives.  Erika Mae Martin’s costumes, right down to the aprons with the professionally embroidered name of the shop on them, are perfect.  Lynessa Flowers’ sound and  Brittany Mellerson’s lighting are also terrific in this small theater.

Bess Wohl’s “American Hero” plays at the Custom Made Theatre Company through April 6, 2019. www custom-made.org/american-hero

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →