‘Skeleton Crew’ at The Curious zooms in on the lives behind the corporate cuts

Late last year, GM announced the closure of several large plants and an overall workforce reduction of 15 percent. The move was explained by the company as reflective of consumers’ growing preference for SUVs, with the closed plants being ones that only made passenger cars.

Plant closures in the U.S. are nothing new, and often they don’t cause much of a ripple in the national news. For those communities impacted, though, these corporate decisions have enormous ramifications.

Against this backdrop comes Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 drama “Skeleton Crew,” now playing at Denver’s Curious Theatre. In the breakroom of an unnamed manufacturer’s steel stamping plant (they make doors, maybe?) we meet four employees circa 2008 — all with the Damocles sword of shutdown hanging over their heads.

Rumors swirl at the Detroit plant, but only two of the characters know for sure that the plant is doomed. Faye (Perri Gaffney) is coming up on her 30-year mark and ready to retire and manages to pull the news out of her supervisor Reggie (Cajardo Lindsey), who swears her to secrecy.

In the dark are a very pregnant Shanita (Kristina Fountaine) and another young man named Dez (Quinn Marchman).

In the slow-moving first act, we learn a lot about the characters. Whoever the father of Shanita’s daughter is, he’s out of the picture — although she’s reluctant to offer any details about this or much of anything else. Faye is the union rep and apparently also homeless as she’s taken to sleeping in the breakroom after everyone goes home at night. Dez is up to something, carrying a gun in his pack while managers are on the lookout for thieves at the plant. And Reggie is still getting used to his role as a manager, coming up from the ranks and uncomfortable as liaison between his peeps on the front lines and the suits above.

It’s everyday stuff, and while the acting is good and Morisseau does a nice job sketching out the characters, the act drags without much in the way of rising action. It’s not until the very end of the act that Reggie calls Dez out for the gun and a mysterious bag in his pack that things start to get moving.

Bare bones

While the title refers to the stripped-down staff at the plant, it’s also a nod to the relationship between these characters when we first meet them. They’ve known each other for some time, yet they don’t seem to know much about each other. They all have secrets, a range of issues and concerns they’re loathe to discuss and a lot of mistrust both among themselves but chiefly focused on the upper management.

Under the direction of donnie l. betts, Morisseau’s script slowly strips away their defenses as the rumored becomes the inevitable and their jobs are all on the line. Timing, it seems, is everything. Faye only needs to get to 30 years for her full retirement; Dez just needs six more months of overtime to help fund his business idea; the near future is uncertain for soon-to-be single mother Shanita; and Reggie knows more about the closure date than any of them.

With the clock ticking and the stakes high, it should make for a compelling story. Somehow, though, “Skeleton Crew” never quite gets there. As a character sketch of four African Americans stuck in the margins of a Detroit car maker’s ledger book, it’s interesting enough and certainly timely. This one is part of a three-play cycle, so I’m not sure if seeing the others would help.

On its own, though, “Skeleton Crew” has plenty of fine moments. To lighten things up at the top of Act 2, Morisseau gives Shanita a very funny and impassioned diatribe about Detroit traffic, which Fountaine delivers with enthusiasm. Lindsey and Gaffney have a tremendous pair of scenes where they drop all their defenses and lay things out as they really are — perhaps for the first time, to anyone. And Marchman’s character, who we think might go down one road, takes a turn for the better while his burgeoning relationship with Shanita offers a glimmer of hope.

It’s a strong production, with a nice set design that incorporates some fascinating projections between scenes and good use of the original music by James Key. In the end, though, the play never added up to more than the sum of its parts in a way that would have people leaving the theater feeling truly moved.

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