For the past few months, we’ve all read daily headlines about unhappy employees quitting their jobs. But, deep down, we all know these people are the exception, not the rule. Meanwhile, even as we relentlessly order from Amazon, so many folks are stuck in the same troubling situation that plague the beleaguered Detroit automobile factory workers who populate Dominique Morriseau’s outstanding drama “Skeleton Crew,” now getting a belated Broadway debut under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s sublime direction at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
However, it’s not just the topical relevance of the two-hour work (which is actually set in 2008 and was first seen at the Atlantic Stage 2 in 2016) that commands our complete attention. What is most impressive about the play – the third in Morriseau’s “Detroit Cycle” – is the writer’s remarkable skill in crafting the interpersonal relationships among the four people who periodically populate the factory’s break room (brought to detailed life by the gifted Michael Carnahan).
The most fascinating and complex of Morriseau’s quartet of characters is Faye (a thoroughly deglamorized and breathtakingly brilliant Phylicia Rashad), one of the factory’s most senior and skilled workers and the union’s leader. A tough-talking lesbian who is battling breast cancer (among other woes), she is understandably guarded and frequently angry.
Yet, she is also, at times, incredibly vulnerable and shockingly self-destructive. Most importantly, Faye – who is estranged from her grown son -- looks out in an almost-maternal way for her closest compatriots, the ambitious if hotheaded Des (a superb Joshua Boone) and the very pregnant, very smart Shanita (a wonderful Chante Adams) who fight and flirt with each other in equal measure.
Ultimately, though, Faye’s greatest concern is for Reggie (a terrific Brandon J. Dirden), the factory foreman and the son of her now-dead best friend (and possible lover) Katherine. With the factory on the verge of shutting down, Reggie clearly has trouble balancing his responsibilities to his corporate bosses and his continuing need to provide for his family with his loyalty to Faye, who often makes it very hard to be kind to her. Indeed, we too rarely see female characters on Broadway with Faye’s complexity, and Rashad bravely doesn’t shy away from portraying any aspect of her personality.
Just as important as character development to play’s success, however, is the fact that Morriseau knows how to masterfully let the show’s many plot twists seep out in a surprisingly natural fashion. We’re never sure what’s coming next, but ultimately everything that happens seems inevitable.
Moreover, her language is both realistic yet poetic, and it comes to vivid life thanks to the extraordinary ensemble. In fact, Morriseau’s way with words is so strong that the somewhat clever use of a non-speaking “performer” (Adesola Osakulami) to enliven the show’s many short scene breaks ends up feeling a little jarring.
If Morriseau, like August Wilson, is going for a 10-play cycle about her hometown, please count me in. She knows how to get my motor running. No bones about it!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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