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Review: A fast-food worker fights to be an 'American Hero,' but big business has her sandwiched

Review: A fast-food worker fights to be an 'American Hero,' but big business has her sandwiched
Yet another workday unfolds against a stacked deck for sandwich-makers played by Anna LaMadrid, left, and Laura Mann in "American Hero," presented in Pasadena by Iama Theatre Company. (Dean Cechvala)

A sandwich is not just a sandwich in the comedy-with-a-message play “American Hero,” but a building block in the U.S. economy.

Bess Wohl’s fractured fable uses a franchise sandwich shop as a microcosm of U.S. work life, which she depicts as wearying, disheartening, absurd and outright maddening, especially for minimum-wagers barely hanging on from paycheck to paycheck.

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Iama Theatre Company gives the 2013 play a buoyant local premiere in a guest production in the small Carrie Hamilton Theatre upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Like “Native Gardens,” which just concluded its run on the Playhouse’s main stage, “American Hero” approaches big American themes with gentle humor rather than pulverizing seriousness. The little guys in the story aren’t wholly heroic, nor are the slightly bigger guys entirely villainous. In the audience, the 1% and the 99% can sit shoulder to shoulder and laugh with equal enthusiasm.

In the last 2½ years, L.A. has witnessed New York-based Wohl’s work in the cross-continental explorations of “Barcelona” and the wellness-center pondering of “Small Mouth Sounds.” She states her themes amusingly and good-naturedly in “American Hero,” but her ideas run this way and that, often petering out well short of insight. Director James Eckhouse and his cast approach the material with such gusto, though, that you might not notice or care.

The heroes of this story are three workers hired to assemble heroes — ah, yes, the play’s dualities begin with the title — at a new franchise shop in what could be any U.S. city.

Sheri (Laura Mann), the youngest at 18, is taking this on as a second job, rather than getting a higher education, so that she can pay for her dad’s medications. She speaks in a small, quaking voice, her eyes wide with unease. She doesn’t consider herself smart, but then, she’s never been given a chance to prove herself.

Jamie (Anna LaMadrid) is 33, divorced and in a custody battle for her three kids. For all the confidence she displays with her form-fitting clothes and gum-cracking attitude, she is dangerously adrift.

Ted (Graham Outerbridge), 43 years-old and married with two kids, shows up for training wearing a full suit and carrying a briefcase. A former banker, he’s used to being in charge, but he messed up.

Their foreign-born franchise owner/manager, Bob (Rodney To), was a doctor back home and has made a big investment in the shop. His pursed lips identify him as a humorless sort, but perhaps life hasn’t given him much to be cheerful about.

The corporation holds all the power, as evidenced by its branding and forced conformity — humorously conveyed in the aggressively cheery franchise colors of Justin Huen’s terrifically realistic set and the orange polo shirts, tan vests and jaunty sun visors of Melissa Trn’s costumes, a humiliating combination that no adult would wear under any other circumstances.

This mini-course in capitalism heads in ever more fanciful directions after Bob goes missing and supplies are cut. Big-business America keeps stacking the deck, concerned solely with itself. The patriarchy, in the form of Ted, assumes it’s in control as well.

Eckhouse and the boundlessly funny actors find just the right tone for every scene, whether conveying the repetitious, ritualized motions of the sandwich line or Sheri’s work-exhausted dream involving a human-size sandwich with a nightmarishly echoey voice and lettuce spilling out of his jacket sleeves like Liberace lace.

Can these workers beat the system? They’re creative and motivated, even if they’re sandwiched from all sides.

On the job with, from left, Laura Mann, Anna LaMadrid, Graham Outerbridge and Rodney To.
On the job with, from left, Laura Mann, Anna LaMadrid, Graham Outerbridge and Rodney To. (Dean Cechvala)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘American Hero’

Where: Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

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When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 21

Tickets: $30

Info: (323) 380-8843, iamatheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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