Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The four characters in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew manufacture car parts in Detroit, circa 2008, at a plant that's on the verge of becoming one of the town's many ghost factories. They’re skilled at their jobs, and they take pride in creating objects powerful enough to serve as transports, death machines, even last-ditch homes for those without nowhere else to turn. But as Detroit deteriorates along with its signature industry, they are torn between strategies of survival: the every-man-for-himself ethos of American individualism versus the solidarity of unions, friends and chosen families. “Nobody wants to merge no more,” says the young, pregnant Shanita (Chanté Adams), describing an episode of road rage. “We just gettin’ squished into smaller lanes.”
Morisseau’s drama, which takes place in the factory’s break room, performs multiple jobs adroitly. There is a touch of David Mamet in Skeleton Crew’s who’s-fooling-who intrigue about the company’s plans for the plant’s future (and a rash of robberies that seem like inside jobs), and a hint of August Wilson in the differing modes of Black masculinity embodied by Joshua Boone as Dez, a streetwise hustler with a suspicious backpack, and Brandon J. Dirden as his straight-laced foreman, Reggie. There is also a budding flirtation between Dez and Shanita, and even some break dancing in the breaks between scenes: The self-choreographed Adesola Osakalumi, a holdover from director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s powerful 2016 production of Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic, performs riveting robotic moves that evoke, among other things, the automation that is rendering human workers more dispensable.
At the hub of the wheel is the character of Faye, a weathered lesbian who serves as the workers’ union rep and was close with Reggie’s mother. At the Atlantic, Faye was played by stage vet Lynda Gravatt, a model of rusted steel; in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway production, she is portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, and the fit of actor to part is not quite as felicitous. Rashad can’t resist being charming; she twinkles a bit, like the star she is. But if some of the grit has been lost in Skeleton Crew’s refurbished Broadway form, which also includes flashy video effects, Morisseau’s play remains firmly based in the lives and evocative language of its characters, whom Santiago-Hudson treats with the respect they deserve. They’re flawed but decent people, driven by forces that may or may not be beyond their control.
Skeleton Crew. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. With Phylicia Rashad, Chanté Adams, Joshua Boone, Brandon J. Dirden, Adesola Osakalumi. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.
Skeleton Crew | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy