The construction of the joke is perfect: A 60-ish woman in the grungy break room of a metal stamping factory lights a cigarette beneath a sign that says “No Smoking Faye” — the “Faye” part added by hand in big, angry letters.
Naturally, as we soon learn, she is Faye.
So begins “Skeleton Crew,” a play by Dominique Morisseau that in considering the ways we must sometimes break rules, breaks none itself. It’s so adroitly built and written — and, in the Manhattan Theater Club production that opened on Wednesday, so beautifully staged and acted — that you hardly have time to decide, until its brisk two hours have passed, whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy. Even then, as in life, you may not know for sure.
Start with Faye, who has worked at the factory for 29 years; she plans to hang on until, at year 30, her pension bumps up significantly. As played by Phylicia Rashad in a wonderfully ungrand performance, wearing flannel shirts, big jeans, work boots and a look of sour contentment, she would appear to have her life under firm control — and, as union rep and auntie of the break room, her co-workers’ lives as well. Dispensing wisdom and correcting their foolishness, she models candor and self-reliance, even when, as “Skeleton Crew” in good time reveals, the two come into conflict.
You might call Faye’s specialty, like the play’s, clarity about moral ambiguity. And in Detroit in 2008, with the national economy a “dumpster fire” (as a TV news snippet tells us) and the auto industry in particular collapsing, there’s plenty of moral ambiguity to go around.
For Reggie, the unit foreman and author of the no smoking sign, the pressure is almost too much to bear. Burdened with advance knowledge that the factory will shut down within the year, it falls to him to keep efficiency high as workers are let go. But despite his tie and white collar, his is a blue-collar soul, and the terrific Brandon J. Dirden shows just how close the contradictory pull of job and community comes to strangling him as he tries to protect the skeleton crew that remains.
Aside from Faye, that crew includes Shanita (Chanté Adams) and Dez (Joshua Boone), both under 30 and thus with more (or is it less?) to lose than Faye. Theirs is a classic “B plot,” but the comic and romantic contrast their story provides is more complex than its bald structural purpose suggests.
Yes, Dez has a longtime crush on Shanita, who is pregnant by a different man. Sweetly, he walks her to her car every day; tartly, she even lets him. But both have existential worries that interlock with and deepen the play’s larger issues. How can Shanita raise a child alone if the bedrock of her self-confidence — her job — crumbles beneath her? How will Dez survive in a world that sees his labor no less than his existence as expendable? (Though all four characters are Black, racism is more of a given than a theme.)
These questions do not seem likely to be answered satisfactorily when, with perfect timing, a gun comes into the picture.
In truth, some of the plot devices, the neat parallels and red herrings, are, like Faye, a bit creaky with use. But that doesn’t stop them from working; indeed, it’s a pleasure to surrender to classic craftsmanship. Though you can certainly sense Morisseau’s debt to August Wilson in her dramaturgy — “Skeleton Crew” is part of a trilogy of works set in Detroit, as Wilson had his Pittsburgh Cycle — you also sense the brute efficiency of problem plays by Ibsen and the best television procedurals.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s staging at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, improving in many ways on the one he directed for the Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, makes the most of the larger space and the excellent new cast. Michael Carnahan’s set, expanding in grunginess on his earlier version, turns grime into a kind of pulp poetry, from the peeling linoleum to the succulents striving to survive in a barely translucent window. The costumes, by Emilio Sosa, provide both psychology and sociology even in a limited range of sartorial gestures: a “Juicy” sweatshirt for Shanita, a fleece sweater-vest for Reggie.
I was less convinced, as was also the case downtown, by the interludes of robotlike popping and waving (choreographed and performed by Adesola Osakalumi) that, along with Nicholas Hussong’s projections, suggest the harsh and repetitive labor taking place beyond the break room. Instead of enhancing our understanding of the characters, these dance moments, however astonishing, seem unrelated and unspecific, detracting from the play’s insistence on valuing workers, not just work.
At its considerable best, “Skeleton Crew” practices that preachment; its characters are not just building blocks in a moral tale but a pleasure for actors to perform and thus for audiences to experience. Especially in the scenes between Faye and Reggie, when Rashad and Dirden get to use every tool their years onstage have put at their disposal, you can’t look away from the many things they’re doing at once. Collegiality, scorn, fear, affection — and a shared history saved for a late reveal — all come into it. What comes out of it is the richness of great performance.
If the play itself is sometimes over-rich, it is not underfed. Real things are at stake for characters who expect a respectable reward for labor and loyalty. That their expectations are so rudely disappointed makes it harder to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t, and tragedy could easily ensue.
Perhaps what ultimately tips “Skeleton Crew” in the other direction is the way it abjures cynicism in favor of connection. Though Faye at one point says “I don’t abide by no rules but necessity,” it turns out — in a perfectly turned final surprise — that necessity is sometimes a synonym for love.
Through Feb. 20 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Manhattan; manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 2 hours.