“Skeleton Crew,” which opened Wednesday at the MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, is a play that offers up two surprises. A gun that is introduced early in the drama never goes off. And the demise of a Detroit factory has an upbeat, if not happy, ending.
I’ve never worked in a factory, but I have worked at a few magazines that went under, and there’s nothing remotely upbeat about the frantic search for a new job, the immediate financial insecurity, the harsh blow to pride. All those traumas are on display in Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 play, but her four workers in a stamping plant in Detroit in 2008 show a final resolve that is amazing, if not totally unbelievable, as they face future unemployment.
Those four workers fall into four very familiar stage categories: the angry young man (Joshua Boone), the young single expectant mother (Chante Adams), the all-wise union rep (Phylicia Rashad) and the worker turned persnickety manager (Brandon J. Dirden), who has a lot less power than everyone else thinks he does — and that might even include the playwright.
Under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s taut direction, this cast of four is uniformly splendid. Rashad, famous for playing a mother on TV in “The Cosby Show” and on stage in “Blue” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” completely transforms herself into a seasoned factory worker here, and she wears those overalls with absolute confidence. Boone delivers a fierce, raw performance that consistently galvanizes the drama when he’s on stage. Granted, he has a slightly easier task than the other three actors. His Dez character is the only one not infected with a blinding naivete about the world in which they live and work.
Although the play is set in the year of the Great Recession and the city of Detroit has long been dying, Morisseau’s characters have a pride in their jobs and a belief in workers’ rights that sounds like something out of a Clifford Odets play from the Great Depression. Their positivism sparks a convenient conflict involving the disillusioned Des, but it also establishes him as the only one with a grip on reality. The expectant mother’s speech about turning down a job at the local copy center to remain at the troubled factory rings especially false.
Besides the gun that doesn’t go off, “Skeleton Crew” is almost devoid of suspense because Morisseau telegraphs every plot development well in advance, and that includes both a romance and a romantic revelation, as well as a few thefts.
One element of Santiago-Hudson’s direction shakes things up a bit. In between this two-act play’s many scenes, the dancer Adesola Osakalumi impersonates a worker-machine on the assembly line. At these moments, Michael Carnahan’s locker room set comes alive with projections, by Nicholas Hussong, that show the brutal mechanics of a real assembly line. Near the end, Osakalumi’s dancing and Hussong’s projections effectively deliver a nightmare out of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” It’s a bracing dose of reality before Morisseau provides a rousing we’re-all-in-this-together feel-good finale.