Look! Up on the stage! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!
No, it’s just a guy in a leather cape with adequacy issues.
In “Reals,” playwright Gwydion Suilebhan takes a classic comic-book theme — the hero with amazing powers who’s got the same hang-ups as you or me — and turns it upside down. His characters are all people with the same hang-ups as you or me, except they imagine they have amazing powers. And so they dress up in ludicrous outfits (amusingly rendered by costume designer Kendra Rai) and award themselves alternative identities with nicknames that at first sound cool and intimidating but on repeated hearing make them seem all the more pathetic.
The Washington-based Suilebhan is a sweet dreamer himself, for he refuses to look down at these silly figures, who adopt nicknames such as Nightlife (Andres C. Talero) and Belt (Blair Bowers) and Sensei (Jon Hudson Odom) and hold clandestine meet ups in an ominous-looking warehouse; the loftlike, soon-to-close H Street Playhouse seamlessly accommodates set designer Steven T. Royal Jr.’s graffiti-pocked evocation of the clubhouse.
The playwright’s concept offers all sorts of sad and funny possibilities, as you ponder what the characters’ antics mean for a culture so besotted with childish fantasies of possessing strengths far beyond those of mortal men. Still, by the end of this 85-minute world premiere, produced by Theater Alliance and directed by Shirley Serotsky, I wasn’t entirely clear on what “Reals” is really about, perhaps simply because the exposition and character back stories become more complicated than they need to be. One is left with the strong desire for an untangling of the plot, and in the play’s reincarnation, a refinement of what details an audience requires and what it doesn’t.
Theater Alliance, under its new artistic director, Colin Hovde, is to be commended for staging Suilebhan’s play. It is often the case these days that a new work necessitates more than one production to find its footing; the existing infrastructure for new play development here or anywhere else, however, doesn’t make locating a second venue all that easy. Theater J, Serotsky’s home turf and so often the local pioneer in this regard, accomplished this with its mounting of Anna Ziegler’s stirring “Photograph 51” after it had been staged by tiny Active Cultures Theatre. And Arena Stage came to D.C. playwright Karen Zacarias’s aid with a second production of “The Book Club Play” following its debut at Round House Theatre.
Although entirely set in the warehouse that Talero’s Nightlife (a.k.a. Jack) thinks of as his lair, “Reals” tries to cover a lot of ground in an hour and a half. Nightlife — and what an odd moniker that is, sounding like the name of a superheroic gigolo — is trying to assemble a team of, as his mantra goes, “well-trained costumed vigilantes to restore order to our streets.” (The premise, Suilebhan says in the program, is based on actual groups in some American communities that are put together in similar ways.) As in comic books, the pseudo-heroes of “Reals” have “origin stories” of how they came to adopt their alter egos. One of the linchpins of the play is the reliability of the characters’ stories and what the characters’ efforts at myth-making ultimately reveal about them.
At this stage, however, there’s too much foundation-laying in “Reals.” A prologue in which a purported superheroine (Brynn Tucker) gives us a lengthy treatise on superhero culture merely steals time from the main event: the gathering in which Belt and Nightlife meet the mysterious Sensei, a martial-arty type in a cool pair of sunglasses, played by Odom with a fine, sensuous languor. In Talero, Bowers and Tucker, too, Serotsky has marshalled a strong cast to play the young souls seeming to seek some higher civic purpose through masked street patrols and camaraderie in combat.
But they are four characters in search — like their audience — of more authorial clarity.
by Gwydion Suilebhan. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Set, Steven T. Royal Jr.; lighting, Stephanie P. Freed; costumes, Kendra Rai; sound, Elisheba Ittoop; fight director, Nathaniel Mendez; taekwondo consultant, Caleb Ward. About 90 minutes. Through Sept. 16 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE. Call 202-241-2539 or visit www.theateralliance.com.