The doors haven’t shut — yet — but the walls seem to be closing in irrevocably on the characters in “Skeleton Crew,” Dominique Morisseau’s closely observed, eloquent and deeply compassionate drama about automotive plant workers in Detroit during the Great Recession. First seen Off-Broadway, the play has moved to Broadway under the auspices of Manhattan Theater Club, at a time, unhappily, of another national crisis, economic and otherwise, stemming from the ongoing — and ongoing and ongoing —pandemic. (Performances of “Skeleton Crew” were canceled, and the opening delayed, due to COVID-19 issues.)
Phylicia Rashad plays the central role of Faye, a worker who is nervously hoping that her 29 years at the factory will click over to 30, thus ensuring a significantly larger payout, before rumors of the small plant’s imminent demise prove true. Faye presides with a sense of earned entitlement over the break room in which all of the action takes place. The room itself shows signs of the decay that has been spreading across the automotive sector in the city for years: glass panes in the window have been randomly replaced, the walls seem ready to shed their lurid green paint, the ugly-plaid couch surely dates from decades back. And the “No Smoking” sign is a sheet of paper stuck to the wall with tape. Actually, while the words “No Smoking” are printed in reasonable type, below them is scrawled, in an exasperated hand, “Faye.”
It’s an admonition she blithely ignores, except when the shop foreman, Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden), bustles into the room, dressed tidily in his corporate shirt and tie, but sweating anxiety as he tries to manage the fears of his worried workers without giving away too much information. The play’s other characters are the pregnant Shanita (Chante Adams), and her ardent admirer, Dez (Joshua Boone), both of whom are eager for more overtime even though, with the staff reduced, they are already working harder than ever.
“Skeleton Crew” is a studiously unflashy play, and the better for; it depicts the warm if sometimes tense relationships among its four characters in fine detail, but the play’s temperature never rises into incendiary territory, even when it is revealed that Dez regularly packs a firearm in the backpack he brings to the plant. (Spoiler alert: Morisseau ignores Chekhov’s famous dictum about bringing a gun onstage.) Only in the final scenes does the pressure of the plant’s impending closure drive a character to a desperate act.
The characters’ simmering anxieties are deftly revealed without being overdrawn by the superb cast, under the discreet but focused direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who seems to have taken up residence at the Samuel J. Friedman theater, after performing (and directing) his solo show “Lackawanna Blues” in the same venue last fall.
Rashad, who often draws on her naturally regal presence as a performer, here retains just the right amount of casual imperiousness, but it mostly takes the form of a stern, often acid-tongued maternal care for her co-workers. As for herself, she keeps quiet, for reasons both practical and prideful, about the fact that she does not currently have a home, and is essentially living in the plant when it gets too cold to stay in her car. Rashad’s deeply grounded performance, like a battered and worn leather coat with a warm fleecy lining, is the play’s emotional center, but the actor also depicts Faye’s increasing despair as news of the plant’s closing — not to mention the stories of materials being stolen — swirl at an increasing pace. There’s a reason Faye can’t stop herself from grabbing a smoke — it’s the only thing she can rely on to keep her nerves steady, and a lifeline of sorts to the life before.
Dirden, whose harried Reggie has a longstanding personal relationship with Faye, is also excellent. When Reggie enters the break room, he always seems to be half on the run from something — namely his onerous responsibilities, torn as he is between a natural loyalty to the workers and his necessary obligations to the company. Although Reggie remains even-keeled even when the thefts become a pressing problem, Dirden keeps the character’s unspoken sympathy for the workers in clear sight, and when Reggie ultimately puts his job and career on the line when pushed too far, Dirden expertly expresses the depth of his anguish.
Adams and Boone have somewhat less complex roles. But Adams brings a beaming brightness to Shanita and delivers a moving speech about her attachment to her work. She has heard of a more secure job at a copy center, but the pleasure she takes in her work has become a cherished part of her life; Morisseau understands, and in this finely wrought monologue conveys concisely, that blue-collar work can be as rewarding, and inspiring of loyalty and pride, as better-paying, more prestigious and less physically demanding jobs. For Shanita, it’s never just been about the money.
Boone nicely renders Dez’s somewhat frustrated affection for Shanita, although this subplot, with its teasingly antagonistic flirtation that gradually evolves into something deeper, feels somewhat predictable. (An analogous relationship was also a feature of Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” a somewhat similar play this season about the dignity of work.) Boone also underscores Dez’s stormy rebellious streak — he refused to join the union — without turning him into a generic firebrand.
“Skeleton Crew” resolves the conflicts and tensions that arise in an appropriately understated key: Although revelations come, the play does not rise to a dramatic confrontation between workers and supervisor over the fate of their jobs. This, one assumes, is Morisseau’s express intent. For the many thousands of workers whose formerly secure jobs evaporated as much auto manufacturing moved out of Detroit, the end came not with a sudden bang, as of a car backfiring, but with a sad, despairing whimper — to extend the metaphor, the sound of a tire going flat.
“Skeleton Crew” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Jan. 26, 2022.
Review Photo: Matthew Murphy
Creative: Written by Dominique Morisseau; Original Music by Robert Kaplowitz; Original music and lyrics by Jimmy Keys aka ‘J. Keys’; Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; Choreographed by Adesola Osakalumi; Scenic Design by Michael Carnahan; Costume Design by Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design by Rui Rita; Sound Design by Robert Kaplowitz; Projection Design by Nicholas Hussong.
Producer: Manhattan Theatre Club
Cast: Phylicia Rashad, Chanté Adams, Joshua Boone, Brandon J. Dirden and Adesola Osakalumi.