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Theatre in Review: Skeleton Crew (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Phylicia Rashad, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Theatre in Review: Skeleton Crew (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) Just as August Wilson now-and-probably-forever owns the city of Pittsburgh, Dominique Morisseau has, dramatically speaking, taken possession of Detroit. In a trilogy that covers several decades, she chronicles the downfall of a once-thriving city blessed with a vibrant Black culture. The reasons will be familiar to anyone who has read George Packer's The Unwinding: corporate greed, governmental indifference and ineptitude, and structural racism. Each of these plays -- the others are Paradise Blue and Detroit '67 -- are filled with lively characters working out their destinies against a background of social upheaval. Listen closely and you'll hear a community grinding to a halt, like a piece of rusted machinery.

That simile is especially appropriate to Skeleton Crew, which has reached Broadway five years after its initial New York production at Atlantic Theatre Company. Morisseau's characters work at a "stamping plant," where sheet metal parts are made for cars. It has provided several generations with good union jobs, but the year is 2008, the auto industry is falling apart, and more and more plants are shutting down. This one is marked for closure, too, but management is keeping mum for fear that workers will bail, leaving contracts with customers unfulfilled. As part of the city's larger deterioration, criminal behavior abounds: The parking lot is no longer safe, and thieves are making off with critical materials. Even as attrition and firing are employed to shrink employee numbers, surveillance cameras are installed, and mandatory random searches are instituted.

Skeleton Crew focuses on four lives caught in a net of alliances and dependencies, each trying to figure out his or her next move. Faye, a middle-aged shop steward, is a kind of mother figure, handing out tough love to all and carefully guarding the secret of her homelessness; she could be let go just short of the 30-year mark that would make an enormous difference in her pension. The young and entrepreneurial Dez is struggling to get enough cash to fund his own business. He has an eye for Shanita, a talented metal presser who is also pregnant and single. Reggie, the foreman, knows their days are numbered but is sworn to silence; burdened with family obligations, he must play ball in hopes of getting another management job. He confides the truth to Faye, swearing her to silence and putting her in a compromising position.

The script is salted with needle-sharp wit and memorable takedowns. "And that's sexual harassment 5,062," Shanita says, responding to Dez's latest round of sweet talk. And a mostly new cast, under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who has been with the play since the Atlantic), tear into their roles like veterans of the assembly line. Phylicia Rashad's Faye takes command from the moment she enters, spots a no-smoking sign that has been customized with her name, and, smiling wickedly, lights up. "I'm yo' elder up in here," she informs Dez, following up on an invitation to kiss her boots. A lesbian, candid about her orientation, she brooks no opposition, whether relieving Dez of his ready cash in a game of Crazy Eights or standing up to Reggie, demanding a decent severance package for all. And yet, she is heartbreakingly vulnerable: Frozen out by her judgmental son and brought low by illness, bad choices, and worse luck, she holds on, tenaciously, to her independence.

Equally good is Brandon J. Dirden as Reggie, who was promoted from the floor and finds himself torn between management and the workers who are his old friends. (Left unrevealed until the eleventh hour is his semi-familial connection to Faye, which enormously complicates their relationship.) His mounting frustration explodes in a confrontation with Joshua Boone's Dez, who is sick and tired of being the continual object of suspicion -- and who knows he is being lied to about the plant's future. (The audience has a few questions about Dez, too, including the gun that, in contravention of the rules, he has stashed in his bag.) Chanté Adams is an intriguing combination of innocence and grit as Shanita, especially in her eloquent defense of work that means something -- an exercise of one's skills, a contribution to society. The one holdover from the earlier production is Adesola Osakalumi, who choreographed and performs the movement sequences that link each scene.

These sequences -- featuring original music and lyrics by Jimmy Keys (aka "J. Keys") and video collages, by Nicholas Hussong, of Detroit riots, jazz club signs, and automated machinery -- provide a broader context for an intimately scaled play that has much to say about a city in extremis. Michael Carnahan's break room set, with its grimy leaded windows and clutter, is framed by a proscenium defined by broken tiles and concrete blocks, spray-painted graffiti; it's a powerful statement of urban decay. Rui Rita's lighting combines various day- and nighttime looks with overhead fluorescent lighting and incandescent practical units to remarkably detailed effect. Emilio Sosa's costumes note the difference between Reggie, with his khaki Dockers and button-down shirts, and the others, dressed in jeans, hoodies, Henleys, and safety vests. Rob Kaplowitz also contributes original music along with a montage of news broadcasts and other effects.

The bad news in Skeleton Crew is that, sooner rather than later, the plant will close. The good news is that the characters are resilient enough to face whatever comes next. But they know they're part of a bigger story, and it's not a pretty one. It's interesting that Morisseau's play directly follows MTC's presentation of Lackawanna Blues, Santiago-Hudson's memoir about growing up in another Great Lakes industrial powerhouse in the 1950s. Together, these pieces say something important about structural societal changes that have left working class people -- especially those who are Black -- without a path to a better life. No matter what you hear about low unemployment, it's a problem that isn't going away. As Shanita notes, she can get a job at a nearby copy center, but what kind of life is that? --David Barbour

(31 January 2022)

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