I have never spent much time on the Upper West Side. Sure, I’ve walked along Central Park West and I even visited Strawberry Fields and the John Lennon memorial with my friend Maggie, but never the part of the west side where people who aren’t Sting or Bono or the Chief Inspiration Officer of a Start-up worth a billion dollars live. Anything I know about that part of the city I learned from Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail.
So I was happy to spend a couple of hours there over the weekend. My friend and I had tickets to 2econd Stage Theatre’s production of American Hero, written by Bess Wohl and directed by Leigh Silverman. We gave ourselves some extra time to wander a little bit and eat a crepe from a street vendor. It was partly because it was Sunday and partly because it was Memorial Day Weekend, but the sidewalks were bustling with that early summer ‘can you believe I’m wearing shorts?’ energy of optimism and good will. (This, of course, will quickly change into the dead of summer ‘it’s so effing hot’ lethargy of ennui and grouchiness.)
Being a person who is definitely not from New York, I am always amazed at the community feel of certain blocks or neighborhoods. Even parking garages, which seem to me like some of the most impersonal of places, can have that convivial vibe when the attendant welcomes back a monthly tenant in a way that is altogether familiar and friendly. Growing up in the outer rings of the universe (at least according to the New Yorkers I know) you have an image of New York City as a place, unlike Cheers, where nobody knows your name.
This community feeling only got better when we got to the McGinn/Cazale Theater. It’s a small space, maybe 100 seats, located above a New York Sports Club on Broadway at 76th Street. Despite the fact that their address is technically on Broadway, this is most definitely an off-broadway production. We arrived early enough to not mind the wait for the small elevator, a pro-tip from the usher who said, “You don’t want to walk up those stairs.” I told him I was just relieved that a workout at NYSC wasn’t required before the show.
While we were waiting, he lamented the loss of an old movie palace and theater that had been next door. “It was one of those great places. Amazing lobby. Ornate performance space.” It’s now a Sephora. He asked if I remembered it “Before Sephora.” I said no, but I felt good that he thought I might. Like I could blend here. Like Marisa Tomei in reverse.
Another good hint came from the usher who was taking tickets who said, “You might want to hit the ladies room. It’s a ninety minute production with no intermission.” Seeing the other Sunday afternoon patrons as they filed in, with assistance for many with the stairs, and a collection of orthopedic shoes and just-in-case-there’s-a-chill scarves, I understood how this had become an important part of the pre-show ritual.
The theater filled slowly with a more diverse crowd that you get at some of the bigger shows. Groups of two, like mine, were the exception rather than the rule. These were regulars. These were locals. Many were subscribers who could manage a subscription here, where my full-price ticket was $25, but would have been shut out from the high-dollar, big-name venues further downtown in the Theater District.
The play was the thing, of course, that brought me there and they had me the minute I saw the set, a fully realized sub-shop, complete with working soda fountain and REAL FOOD. There was even a sigh board in the lobby with a time-line history of the sandwich. Mmmm. Sandwiches.
American Hero is the story of three sandwich artists, Sherri, Ted, and Jamie, each at very different places in their lives, but all here for the grand opening of a new outpost of the home of the Toasted Torpedo. To borrow a cliché, the play is what happens when a group of strangers stop being polite and start being real. It is laugh-out-loud funny but also stacks the sandwiches high with some poignant moments and commentary about our post-recession world.
I’ll admit it was Jerry O’Connell who got me through the door, but each of the actors is worth more than than the (cheap) price of admission here. Erin Wilhelmi as Sherri begins so frightened and fragile you’re afraid she’s shatter right there on stage, but finds her strength along the way and owns her job as “Baser! The person who introduces the sandwich!” like a boss. Ari Graynor, Jamie, makes me wish more people had watched her sit-com, Bad Teacher. Daoud Heidami shoulders the parts of frazzled franchisee, disgruntled sub-shop customer, and unfulfilled corporate drone with frenetic energy and palpable empathy.
Then there’s Jerry O’Connell. I saw him in Seminar with Alan Rickman and he was my favorite part of the play that wasn’t, well, you know, Alan Rickman. (I’ll always remember that play, about a complicated fiction workshop, because the very next day, I got the call that changed my life forever and put me into some complicated fiction workshops of my own.) As Ted, O’Connell manages to be confident and vulnerable and a dick and a really good guy. Even if you show up, like me, because you love him as an actor and as that kid from Stand By Me or the super-hero in My Secret Identity or as the guy talking to cockroaches in the awesome and mostly-forgotten Joe’s Apartment, he won’t let you down.
At one point, Jamie asks Ted what he wants. He wants, he says, what anybody wants — to be happy. “In general or in this sub shop?” Both, he answers.
After the play and after we had slowly and carefully maneuvered down the four flights of stairs with the rest of the showgoers, my friend and I made a stop at PinkBerry for some yogurt. Earlier, we had popped into The Coffee Bean for some iced tea. So maybe our Upper West Side Experience wasn’t all that authentic since both of those places are more West Coast than West Side, but both were still yummy and a good way to spend some extra time just sitting outside watching the world walk by — in their shorts.
I didn’t see Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan. I did see lots of people just going about a normal Sunday in their neighborhood. I saw some amazing actors bring to life an interesting and challenging play that manages to be really, really funny at the same time. For a second I felt like a part of a community in a city with eight million people. And I was happy. In life and in that sub shop.