After an omicron interruption that killed a mockingbird (temporarily) the fabulous invalid is back, if still shaky on its feet. Of 41 Broadway houses twenty-two are currently dark, the emptiest I can recall in more than 25 years of New York theatergoing. MJ is here, Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man are opening this week, and the situation will improve in spring but for now it’s pretty quiet for new shows, though one I can recommend.
Glasses are kind of a pain in COVID-reinforced theaters, where mask-wearing is required, and I accidentally left mine at home when I saw Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew. As the show began there was a brief ruckus as a small, forlorn figure negotiated the set, a broken-down breakroom at a Detroit stamping plant. Ah, acting–I had no idea it was star Phylicia Rashad, who I always assumed was tall and regal, based on Mrs. Huxtable and A Raisin in the Sun. Dignified she is, but as Faye she’s almost disquietingly human-size, quick with a wisecrack or insight but wary and inwardly troubled, on the edge of the economic precipice in 2008. The breakroom (a thoroughly convincing set by Michael Carnahan) is full of signs personally directed at the workers for their various infractions; Faye’s a heavy smoker, which she barely tries to conceal from her foreman, Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden, last seen at the Friedman for the Manhattan Theatre Club’s superb revival of Jitney). The atmosphere is thick with smoke…and mirrors.
Faye, who’s counting the days to her 30-year retirement pension, figures out from Reggie’s noncommittal fumblings that the plant is about to be closed, upending her plans. She’s a union rep, an occasional flashpoint between her and younger colleague Dez (Joshua Boone), who doesn’t think she’s vocal enough about their rights with Reggie, whom she sees as a friend and an ally. (The suspicious Dez doesn’t share that view.) Looking on the bright side is Shanita (Chanté Adams, the star of the film A Journal for Jordan), who’s wise beyond her years and contentedly pregnant. There’s clearly an attraction between the two twentysomethings, with a certain pride standing in their way (Shanita is a stickler for rules)–and the gun that Dez hides in his locker, for “protection” against nameless enemies. Thefts at the plant and painful confessions add further complications as the clock ticks on their livelihoods.
While quite funny in spots this is a more serious treatment of worker exploitation than Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, and was part of a trilogy that Morisseau wrote. (The play was seen Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2016.) Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has given the show a limpid staging, one that brings out the shades of gray in all four characterizations. (Reggie, no villain in Dirden’s expertly exasperated portrayal, is a cog in the machine.) The quartet is outstanding, with Boone in particular making Dez’s murkier motivations comprehensible. Faye, as we learn, has more on her plate than we might have guessed, and Rashad gives each slight and ache its proper due. (Adams offers a somewhat sunnier counterpoint, mostly if not altogether confident about her working-class prospects and impending motherhood.) Keeping up the pace are scene-change performances by choreographer Adesola Osakalumi, doing some nifty dancing. It’s an unusual flourish that works, and reinforces the sense of community that overflows in Skeleton Crew, a play with real meat on its bones.