As Faye, Phylicia Rashad has lost her health, her house, her family, and is in danger of losing the job she’s held for 29 years. “I’m runnin’ on soul now Reggie,” she tells her foreman. “Only thing still got fuel in it.”
Faye is one of the four Detroit auto workers full of struggles and secrets who share a workplace about to be shut down in “Skeleton Crew,” a play by Dominique Morisseau that is set during the Great Recession of 2008. It opens tonight on Broadway, after several pandemic-induced delays.
The script, full of dialogue that is both streetwise and lyrical, is unchanged from the original Off-Broadway production six years ago. The play still unfolds as an increasingly revealing portrait of four decent if flawed people depicted with humor and affection. The director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also helmed the original, has gotten largely effective performances out of a new ensemble cast that includes a down-to-earth Rashad, shedding all traces of Clair Huxtable, and featuring some terrific two-character scenes — between Rashad and Brandon Dirden as her boss and long-time family friend Reggie, for example, and the funny/touching bickering flirtations between Chanté Adams as Shanita and Joshua Boone as Dez.
But this first Broadway show to open in 2022 arrives at a time that differs not just from the year in which it is set, but even more markedly from the year it debuted. And that difference, to my surprise, affected my reaction.
When I saw “Skeleton Crew” at the Atlantic Theater in January, 2016, Barack Obama was still president, and the play felt like a look back — from a relatively safe distance – at a more precarious time. Now, when Faye talks about running on soul, it made me think of President Joe Biden’s declaration that we are now in the middle of a “battle for the soul of America.”
When I last saw “Skeleton Crew,” Faye’s health problems hardly registered. She has cancer. Although it’s currently in remission, the treatments put her in a hole (financially, emotionally) that she can’t climb out of.
Not all the new echoes are grim. Now, when Faye’s pregnant co-worker Shanita (Chanté Adams) expresses pride in her work at “the last small factory standing” servicing the Big Three automakers in Detroit. – “Here, I feel like I’m building somethin’ important… My touch…my special care….it matter” – she comes off as exactly the kind of “essential worker” we started celebrating in 2020.
Given these newly resonant moments, I would think I’d have been at least as enthusiastic toward the new production as toward the earlier one. But, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t.
Perhaps I can blame some of this on my mood. Here I was masked and worried, watching characters full of worry. I suspect I might have been more receptive to a show like “Ain’t Too Proud,” the musical also set in Detroit for which Morisseau wrote the book, marking her Broadway debut. (Ironically, that musical shut down earlier this month.)
It might also have had something to do with the larger Broadway house, more than three times the number of seats as the Off-Broadway theater. Some of the casual moments that take place in the break room – early in the morning before their backbreaking work on the factory line, or late at night – somehow feel too small now; dwarfed. The director tries to go big with the dance interludes between the break room scenes, choreographed and performed by Adesola Osakalumi, the only holdover from the Off-Broadway production. In the original production, he was glimpsed through the back window of the break room, as if the shop floor, break dancing in a way that suggested the rhythm and the general feel of working on an auto assembly line. Osakalumi now takes center stage, accompanied by literally flashy projections that cover every available surface. These very brief hip-hop numbers are entertaining enough, but they feel imported from a bigger show, and can make the dialogue scenes that follow feel even smaller.
This problem of scale may also explain why Dirden struck me as overplaying too many moments when his characer is supposed to be angry or frustrated, especially with Dez (Joshua Boone, who is able to play his hotheaded scenes with more theatrical precision.)
Now I hope I’m not overplaying my hand. It’s hard to know whether theatergoers who have not seen “Skeleton Crew” before will react the same way, or even notice these details. If I don’t personally find this the right time to mount this play, and I see stumbles in the Broadway production compared to the Off-Broadway original, this is still a solid production of a worthwhile play. Its compassion for its characters manifests itself in nearly every line – some of them funny, some of them reverberating with symbolic meaning, some of them deeply affecting in their defiance and optimism….and their kindness:
“I’m not asking you to make up happy endings,” Faye says to Reggie. “All I’m asking is that you tell ’em they can’t write us off.” She is referring to the management of the company, but isn’t also the playwright telling us this on behalf of the everyday people of Detroit?
“Skeleton Crew” played through February 20, 2022 at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater.