MTC’s Skeleton Crew Projects Power and Hope on the Factory Wall

Adesola Osakalumi in MTC’s Skeleton Crew. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The In-Person Broadway Experience: MTC’s Skeleton Crew

By Ross

I did not expect this, to be honest; those black-lit dance moves firing up Manhattan Theatre Club‘s revival of Skeleton Crew at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway with tense precision. It was a marvel to breathe in, exciting and gearing us up energetically with the fine pointed work of performer/choreographer Adesola Osakalumi (Public’s Cullud Wattah) and his strong carefully attuned moves, alongside the magnificent projections by Nicholas Hussong (Alley’s Grounded), original music and sound design by Robert Kaplowitz (MTC’s Cost of Living), and original music and lyrics by Jimmy Keys (“The Drawing Board“). The formula unleashed the physical manifestations of the machinery at play with a force that had to be reckoned with, planting us firmly in this hard-surfaced factory setting where Dominique Morisseau (Paradise Blue; Pipeline) has placed her hard-working characters.

In this well-appointed cluttered break-room of a past-its-prime factory, thanks to the solid work of set designer Michael Carnahan (59E59’s I and You), costume designer Emilio Sosa (Broadway’s Trouble in Mind), and lighting designer Rui Rita (Signature’s Paradise Blue), a drama of desperation and engagement rolls out effectively, as directed with a compelling air of authenticity by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Broadway’s Lackawanna Blues). Striding confidently forward, the revival has arrived at just the right moment in time with an expansive energy and a tough tenderness worthy of us clocking in and paying close attention.

Joshua Boone, Brandon J. Dirden, Phylicia Rashad, and Chanté Adams in MTC’s Skeleton Crew. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The three Stamping Plant workers run in, playfully bicker, flirt, and take care of one another in their own complicated reactive way, drawing us in solidly and carefully without an overwhelming force. They all find their place in the continuum, simply and authentically, supervised by their former co-worker Reggie, played strongly by Brandon J. Dirden (MTC/Broadway’s Jitney). He has made good, by following the rules and juggling his loyalties inside a tense anxiety that has some consequences. “Don’t nobody want to merge anymore?” It’s a question said to the room of working-class fighters, although somewhere along the road, keeping just enough to survive, Reggie might have started disappearing from himself, an act of abandonment that leaves signage and complications all around the room.

The air rings true in that overly ordered room, as the three workers file in and out, taking their breaks or having their morning coffee together. But that very same air is heavy with a tense mistrust in their future feelings of security. Another plant close by has closed down, and the word on the floor is that their factory might be next. The unseen bosses are becoming more and more strict, says Reggie, and the crew feels the negative energy on the floor as the number of workers in the line becomes smaller and tighter. A Skeleton Crew is what they are seeing and operating with, but the official word hasn’t made its way down to the workers, even from Reggie. But Reggie knows the gossip is true. Their factory is most definitely next on the chopping block, and not only is he scared for himself, he is scared for his work friends and colleagues with whom he feels more of a connection to than the men he works for.

Finding some semblance of hope in that dingy break room of a noisy, failing factory in the troubling city of Detroit circa 2008 is what Skeleton Crew has packed away in that communal fridge for us all to dig into. Right next to the salad dressing. And the cast rises to the occasion with a level of connectivity that registers. Joshua Boone (Broadway’s Network) as the quick-to-anger Dez, alongside the engaging and clear Chanté Adams (Netflix’s “Roxanne, Rosanne“) as the very pregnant and pragmatic Shanita, finds a flirtatious arrangement that balances them both and adds hormonal excitement to the smoke-stained room. Their electricity and care for one another, draped in playful animosity and fire, deliver a quality that defines the piece and the structure, making us want to lean in closer to the crew and take hold of them.

Joshua Boone and Chanté Adams in MTC’s Skeleton Crew. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Unfortunately for Reggie, he has to hold onto the secret burden of knowing what the future holds. A task he doesn’t seem to have the disconnection for. He knows the weight of that knowledge, as well as what will happen if those he supervises slip up and don’t follow the handed-down printed-out rules. It’s the crew elder, Faye, he turns his heavy heart to, and as played by the ever-so-solid Phylicia Rashad (Broadway’s A Raisin in the Sun; NYCC’s Sunday in the Park…), the alignment makes sense, even before we learn their packed-up history.

Faye, herself, is trying hard to hold on as best as she can, even as she knowingly falters, balancing her role as the Union Rep and knowing she has only one more year to go to get to her thirtieth anniversary in the company. Thirty years, she states, will bring her a much better retirement package than just twenty-nine, but she likes to break the rules, without really batting an eye towards Reggie. There is shame and rebellion in her eyes, and Rashad does an outstanding job sneaking it all in and around the room she inhabits.

Faye feels secure in her position as a strong worker and the longtime union rep. It gives her a righteous status that emulates from her worn-out body. Her powerful frame has seen some hard battles, but her understanding of her present-day situation is unraveling before her eyes. She knows her place and the factory as if it is her living room, and maybe it is in a way we are at first blind to, like all the others, but her devotion to the supervisor Reggie is clear and becomes more defined with each revealing moment those two masters share the stage together in this perfectly well-crafted tale of the unraveling of this corner of America we don’t get to bear witness to that often.

This is classic Americana, played out against the dingy walls of a doomed factory in Detroit. It’s an old news story that we all know well, and feel immediately connected to the uncertainty of that time post-pandemic. The secrets and subtle relationships unspool before our eyes, filling the air with deliciously orchestrated banter and well-understood fear and gossip. Economic hardships sit heavy on these folks, something that we can feel today, with the options of a better future feeling dimmer as the days go forward. Suspicion, theft, and guns are unpacked and sometimes discovered, and the world Faye once knew seems to be vanishing and foreclosing from right under her feet. We feel catastrophe is awaiting them, and with only a Skeleton Crew standing around them, their security and safety are now the questions of the day.

Sacrifice is at the heart of this Skeleton Crew, as is a tough sense of realism, loyalty, and loss. This is not one of those feel-good sentimental plays, crafted to manipulate our hearts, but one detailed in truth by Morisseau to showcase strong alliances of strength and complications. Adams, Dirden, and Boone deliver the goods spectacularly, capturing our attention in their desire and hope, even as fear lurks around just outside that break-room door. But it is Rashad’s Faye who draws us in deeper, unleashing a character that is haunted by her past as her present shakes her from the ground up. “Your philosophy is halfway comforting,” as Skeleton Crew solidly creates a sobering and powerful portrait of camaraderie and survival, pounded out on the line, in the writing and direction, as economic destruction seems to be waiting out in the cold, trying to freeze them out. We stand by them, with hope in our pockets as we all look to the future.

Brandon J. Dirden and Phylicia Rashad in MTC’s Skeleton Crew. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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