Theater Review: American Machine
"Plastics.” When a family friend offers this single word of career advice into the ear of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in the 1967 film The Graduate, it speaks volumes about the affluent world of Benjamin’s parents and their social set — a capital class poised to exploit robust industries. By the end of the film, the lustrous veneer of their synthetic American Dream has cracked to reveal its corrupt core, and Benjamin is opting out of the Establishment’s plan in a big, dramatic way.
Fast-forward 40 years to American Machine , the fictional plastics factory that shares a title with Jim Lantz’s new play, currently running at FlynnSpace in Burlington. When we observe this enterprise Benjamin might have sat astride, we appreciate anew what Hoffman’s character had the wisdom to grasp: that he was free to choose his own American Dream.
Not so the characters in American Machine, an ensemble of graveyard-shift factory workers who are as down on their luck as the U.S. manufacturing sector they labor to keep alive. A plastics factory, it turns out, makes a rich setting for stage drama. It’s an environment whose inhabitants are enervated by the hazards perpetually hovering over enormous machines — not to mention the fear of imminent job loss that permeates any workplace where people make something that could be made more cheaply somewhere else. Add to this scenario six characters stretched thin — financially and emotionally — by the vagaries of blue-collar life, and America’s dark industrial heart is exposed.
Lantz clearly intends such a critical examination in this new work. In a program note, he asks: “When so much is demanding America’s attention these days, will we be known, not for how we looked at our serious problems, but for how we averted our gaze from them?” One way to answer that question with a resounding “no” is to write a play that focuses tightly on the little people entangled in the works of the American Dream — as Arthur Miller did in Death of a Salesman, which Lantz mentions in his note. But for all Lantz’s noble initiative in writing, directing and producing “a play about us” — as the show’s tagline reads — American Machine strays, at times, into what feels like a polemic. The play has an immense heart, and it succeeds in stirring empathy for its characters and their plights. But those plights are so familiar, sometimes to the point of cliché, that Lantz fails to do full theatrical justice to the sharp bite industry takes out of the bodies, minds, souls — indeed, American dreams — of its agents. While this is compelling working-class agitprop drama, it doesn’t challenge Norma Rae’s seat on the break-room throne.
This is not to say that the dilemmas Lantz’s characters face are trite. On the contrary, they’re surely realistic — and worthy of bringing to the stage. The graveyard shift includes Lona (Teresa Lorenco), a single Latina mom at risk of losing custody of her child. Another single mom, Teena (Bridget Butler), is burdened by three kids and a broken-down car. Winkie, played by Bill Toscano, is triply cursed by laziness — which he celebrates — a diet of trash television and a wicked bad haircut. Colin Cramer’s college boy Lane, working a summer job at the plant, is both judged for his privileged status and sexually objectified for his boyish good looks. As the man responsible for keeping the machines working, Buddy, played by Dennis McSorley, is a wizened veteran with decades of service to the company under his belt; his chief complaint seems to be management’s refusal to upgrade the machinery. The shift’s leader, Ipsy, played by Seth Jarvis, is a kind of lovable loser wracked with physical limitations. But neither his cleft palate, his limp nor his palsied hand impairs him as much as his naïve pride in American Machine’s output.
The plot of American Machine is subtle: it revolves around the creeping specter of factory closure. There’s a bit of workplace romance, both requited and unrequited, various non-work dramas that play out during break time, and an instance — a contrived, incredible instance, to be blunt — of someone outed for concealing his true identity. Given the broad strokes with which Lantz paints, each actor is challenged to portray something other than a character type, and the ensemble as a whole strives to become something other than a class. This is a tall order, and the strain of filling it shows often enough to subvert the verisimilitude the play achieves in other moments.
It’s a matter of quality control. Lantz seems to have directed his play loosely, here and there allowing exaggerated portrayals to undercut nuance. Toscano’s Winkie is the most outsized character in the cast. Whether bossing the new kid around, bitching about the empty Coke machine or stoking a pipe dream of brighter employment prospects, he’s like a class-rage cartoon. In contrast, when McSorley and Jarvis appear in scenes together, they conjure not just a credible sense of camaraderie, but a unique quality of friendship. They bond over their experiences at American Machine during its heyday, when the factory made parts for Lincoln automobiles. Even more touching is Ipsy’s admiration of Buddy for having married his childhood sweetheart. The longing in Ipsy’s voice during this scene is so palpable that Buddy seems embarrassed for him, and Ipsy’s clumsy efforts to follow his friend’s example in pursuing a romantic interest are heartbreaking.
Frequently in the play, Jarvis recalibrates the Machine by drawing attention back to the inner life of this character struggling stoically to be bigger than his decrepit human form. Ipsy, unlike the other characters, has been drawn against factory-floor stereotypes. He’s not the foreman with a superiority complex. On the contrary, he’s painfully aware of his inferiorities, among them an inability to pass a community college course in statistics. And when he tries to motivate others to do good work, he focuses on the positive — not the threat of getting canned, but the opportunity to do something of which they can all be proud.
This single role gives the play more poignancy than its evocation of the shifting landscape of American industry. Again, Death of a Salesman comes to mind. Ipsy, like Willy Loman, shows us that a single character, deeply explored and well portrayed, can speak movingly about the general “us” by confronting the particularities of his individual condition. Lantz’s previous play, The Bus, provides another worthy example of this phenomenon. That tale of small-town discord resonated with audiences not because it confronted a Big Idea head on, but because it allowed individual characters’ struggles to stand in for broader issues at work in our culture — homophobia, shame, religious fundamentalism. These are not small ideas.
And Jim Lantz, now two plays into his work as a dramatist in Burlington, is no small presence on the local theater scene. He has taken a mighty swing at a formidable topic in American Machine. Indeed, independent theater itself is one of the riskier enterprises in our vaunted creative economy. That American Machine connects sometimes, and misses at others, doesn’t diminish the valiance of the effort. As Ipsy tells his crew, exhorting them to excel, “Greatness isn’t made. It’s assembled.”
It’s an apt metaphor for this play. American Machine showcases Lantz’s ambition to say important things. Some of the noise out on the factory floor comes from powerful dramatic conflict. But some of it is the rattle of parts not in the best working order.