Broadway Review: SKELETON CREW (Samuel Friedman Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on January 27, 2022

in Theater-New York

A GREAT CREW OF ACTORS BRING THIS SKELETON TO LIFE

There is a family onstage in Dominique Morisseau’s expertly crafted new play Skeleton Crew, which had its Broadway opening at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater last night. There’s a focused, worried Father figure — Reggie. There’s an experienced, solid Mother or maybe Grandmother or maybe Favorite Auntie figure — Faye. There’s a hot-headed, perceptive Brother figure — Dez.  And there’s a hopeful, capable dreamer, Sister figure — Shanita. In the tradition of the best workplace sitcoms (bear with me as a sitcom this is not), these biologically unrelated co-workers form a family of sorts.

Joshua Boone (Dez) and Chanté Adams (Shanita)

Faye and Reggie have such a close, personal history outside of work that one can believe, as can happen in the African American community, they’ve probably called each other  “play-momma’ and “play-son” at some point in their lives. As an African-American man myself, I’ve certainly had my share of “play” relatives in my life and was happy to see this variation on familial relationships represented on-stage. And it is the African American community that is specifically and gloriously on display for this riveting two-hour journey into blue-collar survival and worker expendability. Being African American is not a pressing issue in this play nor does this play try to represent the entire, diverse, complicated Black experience. But there is an authenticity and inside knowingness about the community that so fills the stage, and the characters’ humanity is so apparent (warts and all) that African American audience members as well as those outside of that community will feel resonance and recognition with the characters onstage. Because these characters feel like family. And that family is recognizable to all.

Phylicia Rashad (Faye)

As the play begins, times are tough at a small automotive plant in 2008 Detroit. Adversely affected by the national economic downturn, the recently promoted from crew member to crew supervisor Reggie (the always brilliant Brandon K. Dirden) secretly confides to long-time plant worker Faye (an almost unrecognizable Phylicia Rashad) that the plant will soon close, probably within the year. Faye is faced with two dilemmas – if this happens she’ll lose her job one year short of her thirty year mark with the company, severely cutting her retirement package. She wants to support Reggie through this management crisis – she and Reggie’s deceased mother were long-time best friends and she watched Reggie grow up and helped the high school dropout get an entry-level plant job 15 years prior. However, being the crew union rep, she also has a full crew to think of and protect. Morisseau effectively represents this large crew through two other plant workers: twenty-something Dez (an impressive, multi-layered Joshua Boone), who dreams of opening his own auto shop and senses something wrong at the plant early on. Also twenty-something, soon-to-be single mom Shanita (a razor sharp, very compelling Chanté Adams) who wants to provide well for her new baby and make her father proud by retaining the one thing about her life he respects and she enjoys – her job at the factory. With these disparate threads, Morisseau expertly weaves her emotional and revelatory exploration of loyalty, honesty, deception, love, protection, capitalism, authority, responsibility, violence, trust and community.

Adesola Osakalumi (choreographer / dancer)

Morisseau is an intelligent, dynamic writer who knows how to write for the stage in the classic sense. While the plot for this play is fairly simple, what is stunning is the depth, richness and humanity she mines when these characters engage each other and themselves. It is the stuff of life and she captures it beautifully. Though I did wonder why a supervisor would not have a key to the crew breakroom — the only moment that felt contrived for effect — Morisseau’s structural expertise overall is very solid and she ends the first act in that same breakroom (where the play takes place) with a genuine, justified “what’s gonna happen next?” cliffhanger that instigates an eagerness for the second act.

Joshua Boone (Dez), Brandon J. Dirden (Reggie), Phylicia Rashad (Faye), and Chanté Adams (Shanita)

All the actors’ work is stellar — guided by the experienced and understanding hand of director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Mr. Hudson’s direction was basically invisible — a testament to his creativity, talent and vision — as the proceedings onstage felt so believable. And a major part of the success of that suspension of disbelief was the work of Phylicia Rashad. From the moment Ms. Rashad enters stage lumbering, mannish, a bit disheveled, little if any makeup, she is Faye a Survivor — and not always a nice one. This was no star turn but another character working within an extremely talented and balanced ensemble. Ms. Rashad’s entrance at the top of the play immediately signals to the audience that the night is not about stars but about the four workers in this plant. Her performance is clear, detailed and devastating.

Joshua Boone (Dez) and Chanté Adams (Shanita)

Ms. Morriseau’s plays often have a touch of magical realism and this play continues that tradition. Simply listed as “Performer” in the program, a muscular, versatile dancer named Adesola Osakalumi sinews his way throughout the play, sometimes in the breakroom, sometimes outside the breakroom window — representing various moods, encroaching mechanization and possibly Detroit itself. Combined with Nicholas Hussong’s fascinating media projections and Rob Kaplowitz’s excellent sound design, the choreography, sound and projections play over the scene transitions and help to establish the world outside the play. While these transition elements respectively work in their own right, combined they don’t complement the play as much as compete with it. Even so, Skeleton Crew is a wonderful night of theater that ultimately speaks to the generosity and possibility of the human being, and should not be missed.

Brandon J. Dirden (Reggie) and Phylicia Rashad (Faye)

photos by Matthew Murphy (2021)

Skeleton Crew
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
ends on February 20, 2022
for tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit Telecharge

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