Forget 3-D superhero movies. In The History of Invulnerability at Theater J, Director Shirley Serotsky and her crack team of actors and designers bring Superman comic books to life before your eyes. Robbie Hayes’ spectacular set consists of two huge flats, set at a V-shaped angle and made up of multi-sized panels. The effect is of a giant comic book, and throughout the show, the panels are frequently filled with projected images of comic book art. The projections (also designed by Mr. Hayes) provide a dynamic visual backdrop to the story of Superman’s creator.
Wonderful as the projections are, however, they are upstaged when the top two panels swing open and the actors (in Debra Kim Sivigny’s vibrant, Day-Glo costumes) appear and act out scenes from Superman comics. It may sound like a corny concept, but the cast’s broad, sure physicality and Serotsky’s careful attention to stage picture produce real theatrical magic, and last night the audience’s delight during these sequences was palpable.
The History of Invulnerability tells the true story of Jerry Siegel, the writer of the original Superman comics (played with energetic good humor by David Deblinger). Much of the story is narrated by Superman himself (the square-jawed Tim Getman), who begins the play by confronting Jerry about his origins – not on Krypton, but in Jerry’s imagination. The question of Superman’s relationship to Jerry – is he Jerry’s antithesis? His fantasy alter ego? His long-lost son? The manifestation of some hidden, yet-to-be-unleashed potential within him? – is one that the play returns to again and again, without ever coming up with a definite answer.
That sort of ambiguity can be intriguing, and the conceit of an iconic character coming to life and questioning his creator is the kind of metaphysical premise one can imagine Tony Kushner having fun with. But as the grandiose sweep of the title might suggest, playwright David Bar Katz has taken on a massive subject, and the script frequently suffers from the sense that he is eager to include every piece of Siegel – and Superman-related research he uncovered while writing. Both Superman and Jerry spend a lot of time delivering statistics and exposition directly to the audience, and after awhile these sections can start to feel more like an educational assembly for fourth-graders than a piece of drama.
The play also takes us to Auschwitz, in a fictional subplot about three imprisoned Jews, including a comic-book-reading, Superman-loving young fanboy (the impressive Noah Chiet). At first the Holocaust subplot feels a little contrived, but Bar Katz ultimately makes a compelling point about how real-life atrocity can actually deepen our need to believe in mythic heroes like Superman. And Jerry Siegel’s story is legitimately fascinating, complete with unscrupulous, exploitative editors, Supreme Court cases, and an unlikely late-in-life comeback. But Bar Katz’s script, which is produced here for only the second time, would benefit from dramatizing more of the story rather than delivering it as exposition. And the disturbing final image, though powerful, seems disjointed from the rest of the play.
Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in this decades-spanning history, and Serotsky and her team have attacked the challenges of the script with verve. The hardworking ensemble – which also includes Conrad Feininger, Brandon McCoy, David Raphaely, Jjana Valentiner, James Whalen, and Alyssa Wilmoth - delivers skillful, confident performances across the board, and Hayes and Sevigny’s succinct, witty designs help the play transition seamlessly across many locations and time periods. There’s a tremendous sense of fun underlying The History of Invulnerability.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.
The History of Invulnerability plays through July 8, 2012 at Theater J at The Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 494-TIXS, or purchase them online.