by Samuel L. Leiter
Back in 1939, when leftwing social theater was in its heyday, Harold Rome wrote a tune called “Sing Me a Song with Social Significance” for Pins and Needles, a successful pro-labor revue, produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. That song’s message seems to have reached Tom Attea, who wrote the book and lyrics for An American Worker, a new musical at Theater for the New City, with (prerecorded) music by Arthur Abrams. While I applaud its attempt at social significance, I’m afraid this clumsy show will be a front runner in my list of 2015’s five worst.
An American Worker deals with the unemployment situation in a Pennsylvania town when the local steel mill, the town’s principal employer, goes bust after a prosperous run of 75 years. The furnaces may have been shut down but the show blazes with amateurism in every category, including writing, music, lyrics, direction, casting, acting, singing, dancing, choreography, and design.
Union Steel and its workers are locked in a contract dispute that has sent the workers out on a months-long strike, with neither side budging. Finally, the managers declare that conditions, fueled by the problems of globalization, have become so bad that the mill has to close. The shocked workers are now willing to accept any deal, but it’s too late. Unlike most plays about striking workers, management here is not so much a bunch of evil capitalists but rather the victims of an international business climate that has made their mill unprofitable.
This leaves the audience in the dilemma of wanting to support the workers but unable to find a viable villain other than the amorphous one of global capitalism. The narrative can do little more than focus on how those thrown out of work in a town with no other job opportunities manage to survive. This it does by concentrating on an optimistic young worker named Brian (Mark Ryan Anderson), son of a retired steelworker, Ed (George Morafetis), whose father before him worked for Union Steel. Brian marries Deb (Kelsey Mathes), who soon gets pregnant. When the unemployment benefits dry up, Deb, in her seventh month, is forced to work at the supermarket. These and other domestic setbacks stemming from the shutdown—romantic breakups, drugs, pension stoppages—faced by Brian and his cronies occupy the second act of this two-hour timewaster.
Not to fear. Brian, after briefly falling into the pills and heroin pit, realizes he must relocate so can get work in the burgeoning business of—spoiler alert—fracking. As for the other workers, Attea has a deus ex machina waiting in the wings, but you’ll have to see the play for yourself to discover what it is. Giving the story a happy ending, by the way, is the quickest way to defuse any of the social criticism that preceded it aims to convey.
An American Worker is one of those Moose Murders-like shows that have serious intentions but come off like parodies of bad theater. Bill Murray’s old SNL lounge lizard routine in which a lousy singer thinks he can croon is funny, but when you see actual tone-deaf actors doing the same thing you’ll wish you were deaf yourself. And then there are those upbeat production numbers—including what tries to pass for tap dancing—so crudely imagined and executed you’d be rolling in the aisles if you didn’t realize they were meant to be taken seriously. Listing more of this show’s problems (don’t get me started on the scene shifts) would serve little purpose other than to further embarrass those involved and make me seem an awful meanie, so I’ll cut to the chase. Socially significant plays are still viable, as the 2001 satire Urinetown so successfully demonstrated, but to thrive they require clear targets, imaginative writing and staging, and polished performers. None are present here. It’s enough to make you go on strike.
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).