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Review | ‘Skeleton Crew’ looks for hope despite economic collapse

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Photo: Matthew Murphy

Following the performance cancellations and production closings resulting from the Omicron variant, it is tempting to look back at the sunny enthusiasm of Broadway’s fall reopening with skepticism and regret. However, let’s not overlook or forget a singular achievement of the fall season: no less than eight dramas on Broadway by Black playwrights.

The last of these dramas to open, Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” is the final work of her trilogy “The Detroit Project,” which is made up of dramas involving the creation of and collapse of community in Detroit circa 1949 (“Paradise Blue,” in which a musician considers selling his jazz club to the city as part of its slum clearance program), 1967 (“Detroit ’67,” in which a young man looks to open a bar in the midst of destructive riots), and 2008 (“Skeleton Crew,” which is set at the beginning of the Great Recession, when Mitt Romney famously encouraged Detroit to declare bankruptcy).

Although Morisseau wrote the book for the Temptations jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Skeleton Crew” (which received two Off-Broadway runs in 2016) marks her first drama to be produced on Broadway. (Speaking as an admirer of her shaded, character-driven plays, I truly hope Manhattan Theatre Club considers bringing the entire “Detroit Project” to Broadway.)

Like many other productions, “Skeleton Crew” was forced to cancel many preview performances due to positive COVID findings among its company, and its opening night had to be rescheduled twice. Notwithstanding, Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s absorbing production has finally officially opened and was well worth the wait.

In “Skeleton Crew,” a group of Black industrial workers wait nervously to hear whether their stamping plant will be shut down in the coming months and struggle with how they will move on professionally and survive financially, including the unfazed union leader Faye (Phylicia Rashad, sporting a decidedly rough and worn-out look), conscientious and pregnant Shanita (Chanté Adams), enterprising Dez (Joshua Boone), and middle-aged foreman Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden), who tries to reconcile his job responsibilities with his sense of morality and justice for his colleagues.

In between the superbly-acted scenes, which all take place inside a grim-looking breakroom, hip-hop music plays and a dancer (Adesola Osakalumi) performs mechanized movements intended to represent the factory’s assembly line.

“Skeleton Crew” could have easily ended on a downbeat note. After all, no one is coming to save the factory, and the characters face an uncertain future. But the compassion they share for one another, the sacrifices they make for each other, and the unexpected pride they take in their work, turn “Skeleton Crew” into a most unlikely feel-good – or rather feel-hopeful – drama.  

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., manhattantheatreclub.com. Through Feb. 20.

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