Edmonton-born Brad Fraser is usually classed as a Canadian playwright, but in the Rarely Done production of his Poor Superman,
now at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., he becomes one of our own.
Characters schmooze at Scotch ‘n Sirloin, nosh on wine and cheese at
the Everson, peruse the personals in The New Times (it’s set in
1993), and display their artwork at the Delavan Gallery. Trexx, Lost
Horizon and P.J. Dorsey’s come in for a share of ribbing, as does an
unnamed Christian gentlemen from Cortland. At the play’s center is a
love triangle entangling a married couple and the “other man,” which
could happen anywhere. Only it’s the two guys in extracurricular
activity, with the wife shut out.
Despite the prestige for Canadian prose writers like
Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, Great White North playwrights have had
a harder time breaking onto Yankee boards. Fraser has done better than
most, partially by storming the limits. His best-known work, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love (1989),
has been performed in 12 countries and filmed in 1993. It has also
faced unparalleled censorship, even in this day and age, with one
college drama professor being canned for producing it. Fraser takes the
character of David the searching painter from Remains to become the protagonist in Superman. The show opened in Cincinnati, not always the center of attention, but nonetheless was named one of the Best Plays of 1994 by Time magazine and was later filmed, unsuccessfully, as Leaving Metropolis (2002).
Well-known artist David (Paul Cook) craves fresh
experiences to overcome a creative block. On the advice of his roommate
Shannon (Brian Hensley), a transvestite anticipating a male-to-female
sex change operation, Paul seeks out the Main Street Diner, whose
owners, Matt (Scott Shaw) and Violet (Michelle Mapstone-Haab), are
hiring. The couple do not know of David’s high acclaim and are
surprised to learn he is gay, which is OK with them. Violet approves of
Matt and David’s hanging out together because then her husband will not
be tempted by chicks. The two guys share an interest in comic books
(thus the play’s title), and soon the heat in their relationship rises.
With Matt ever posing, David paints large pictures of him, very
attractive and nude.
Much dialogue takes place in David’s apartment where he often has the witty counsel of Post-Standard columnist
Kryla (Anne Fitzgerald). Sounding a bit like a non-singing Elaine
Stritch, Kryla is nearly always seen with a martini glass and is
allowed some of Superman’s best zingers, many of them naughty.
Complaining of the youthful patrons in Roman’s Tavern, she growls, “I
was growing pubic hair before they were born.” Shannon, although
suffering progressive decline by being HIV-positive, enjoys the second
best lines, many of them turning mordantly on physical attractiveness
and death. The disease will postpone Shannon’s longed-for sex change
operation, but wit never fails him/her.
Fraser introduces an electronic device to cover for the
frequent sexual encounters that appear to be happening before us.
Rarely Done has purchased a DVD of other actors, perhaps from another
production, miming the action before us. A 16-inch monitor upstage sits
on the head of a female metallic manikin in a provocative pose. So when
David and Matt are supposed to be making love before us, we see shadowy
pictures of two sets of male hips above. More often the monitor carries
verbal commentary, like the title cards in a silent movie, such as
“Revelation,” when we’re hearing revealing news in front of us. In a
curtain speech director Dan Tursi reminds us of the importance of the
DVD and why Poor Superman was originally cited as “A Play with Subtitles.”
In the long run, the accompanying DVD must be judged a
liability, which is why no one has repeated the device in the last 15
years. We don’t need to be told what happens during sex because we
already know. Visual symbols, like the train going into a tunnel in
vintage movies, do it better. The verbal commentary is a distraction
and did not raise a single chuckle from the otherwise supportive
audience on opening night. Worse, as the DVD runs at a fixed time, the
action on stage appeared to have been slowed down or sped up to keep
Meanwhile, Kryla, who always disapproved David’s violating Matt’s marriage, comes across the two men in flagrante and
turns into a screaming moral scourge. This sends all the plot lines
smashing, but a dying Shannon encourages David to display his paintings
of Matt, so art triumphs at the end.
Unmentioned thus far is Fraser’s explanation of the
extended and somewhat labored analogy of seeing David as a counterpart
of Superman, the comic book hero, not Nietzsche’s. Actor Paul Cook’s
perfectly sculpted, hairless torso comes with inverted triangle tattoos
fore and aft that resemble the well-known logo, at least from the third
row of Jazz Central. The character David speaks of admiring comic book
art and disputes as virtues of Marvel vs. DC comics with Matt. We are
invited to think of David’s mild-mannered disguise as a waiter at Matt
and Violet’s diner as just the kind of thing that Clark Kent might do.
Other dialogue digresses on Lois Lane and her inability to discern
Kent’s disguise with such a trifling cover as horn-rimmed spectacles.
Fraser’s text allows some charters to soar while others
remain pedestrian. Director Tursi very likely had the previously
little-seen Paul Cook in mind when he decided to do Poor Superman in
the first place. Equipped with an imposing presence, Cook has the right
emotion for every nuance: languor, earnestness, love, dejection, anger
and regret. The more familiar faces of Brian Hensley and Anne
Fitzgerald work ably with contrasting styles, the former sardonic and
biting as Shannon, the latter brassy and glittering playing Kryla.
Straights, as so often, have a harder time in gay-themed
plays. Scott Shaw, initially fresh-faced and eager, never gives us the
vein of weakness of Matt’s double betrayer. And poor Michelle
Mapstone-Haab, hard-working and unappreciated, never gets to utter a
single gag or to earn a shrug of sympathy as Violet.
The only hint of Poor Superman’s Canadian origin
is Matt and Violet’s cribbage game. Otherwise the show is the first
Syracuse-based drama seen in these parts in a long while.
This production runs through May 2. See Times Table for information.