The History of Invulnerability

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Editorial Review

REVIEW: Kryptonite-caliber drama at Theater J
By Celia Wren
Thursday, June 14, 2012

You might be able to deflect bullets, bend machine guns as though they were noodles and leap tall buildings in a single bound. But watch out for those resonant ironies -- they’ll get you every time.

A weakness for underscoring historical and philosophical ironies trips up playwright David Bar Katz as he teases out “The History of Invulnerability,” an ambitious and colorful but heavy-handed and undersynthesized play about the creation of Superman. Now on view in a handsome Theater J production, which does an admirable job of softening the script’s schematic tendencies, it’s a work that sometimes feels less like a piece of theater than an illustrated lecture -- a lecture not only about the life of Jerry Siegel, the Cleveland resident who helped conceived of the Man of Steel in the 1930s, but also about humanity’s ability to use art and imagination to compensate for loss, alienation and powerlessness.

Admittedly, it’s an entertaining lecture, thanks to a sterling cast and the humor and visual gusto supplied by director Shirley Serotsky. Against a backdrop whose rectangular frames resemble graphic-novel panels, Serotsky and her design team sometimes conjure up droll or seductively moody comic-book-style tableaux, including many cameos by Superman (Tim Getman, in full red-and-blue tights-and-cape regalia). This imagery goes a little way toward unifying a play that has encyclopedic impulses, encompassing fantasy sequences; a story line about the Holocaust; allusions to Scripture, Greek myth, Nietzsche, American pop culture and Jewish American history; and slews of juicy tidbits about the adversity-filled life of Siegel, who, with his collaborator, illustrator Joe Shuster, sold the rights to Superman for a measly $130, thus (ironically) failing to reap the financial windfall when the character became a blockbuster success.

Thank goodness for the Kryptonite-caliber performance by actor David Deblinger, who makes Siegel such a fascinating and likable tangle of excitability and neediness that the play’s scattered strands often seem to be extensions of the character’s psyche. Looking nerdy in a beige suit, his eyes gleaming through wire-frame glasses, Deblinger handily conveys the headstrong creative zeal of the Cleveland visionary. When this Siegel mimes Superman’s skyscraper-vaulting leaps, or rises onto the balls of his feet in sheer exhilaration while talking, you see an artist whose enthusiasm for his craft explains his personal and financial missteps. (Deblinger shouldered the role when “The History of Invulnerability” premiered at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; Theater J’s rendition is the second production.)

The invaluable Getman’s exaggeratedly gallant and wholesome Superman supplies some welcome early notes of humor, but the mood turns brooding as periodic conversations between Siegel and Superman become vehicles for contemplating the angst-filled nature of artistic work, the thorniness of parent-child relationships and the frustration and yearning that are humankind’s inheritance. Both Siegel and Superman chip in as narrators for the story; so do various minor characters, including Jerry Siegel’s wistful son Michael (Brandon McCoy), abandoned by a father who considered Superman his real heir. (Irony!)

Filling in the saga’s contours, David Raphaely artfully displays Shuster’s layers of shyness, talent and stoicism, while Conrad Feininger blusters as a deliberately larger-than-life version of Harry Donenfeld, the greedy publisher who forbids Superman’s co-creators from writing vanquish-the-Nazis plotlines. (Supplying cultural context, the show’s scenic and projections designer, Robbie Hayes, often flushes the paneled backdrop with comic-book images, photographs and other bits of pictorial texture.)

That Siegel and Shuster created an invincible all-American hero largely because of their Jewish heritage -- because they felt like outsiders, sidelined by mainstream U.S. culture, and because they chafed at their own helplessness in the face of contemporary European events -- is one of the many ironies that Bar Katz repeatedly emphasizes. To drive the point home still further, he peppers the play with undeniably heartstrings-tugging scenes that follow three inmates at Birkenau -- one of them a boy named Joel (the able Noah Chiet) who believes that Superman will save them from extermination by the Nazis. (Irony!)

Ultimately, the Birkenau scenes, the chats with Superman, the Siegel bio-drama and the cultural history show-and-tell don’t integrate into a fully satisfying dramatic whole. But “The History of Invulnerability” certainly serves up a superhero’s share of thought and infotainment as the play winds towards a bold, dark denouement, which suggests that, fortified by art, hope and self-knowledge, we might all have the strength to face the truth.

PREVIEW: Sorry, Lois, this story is all on deep background
By Jess Righthand
Friday, June 1, 2012

Fanboys and comic book connoisseurs know that when it comes to Superman’s parentage, well, it’s complicated. There are the parents of Superman’s Earthbound persona, Clark Kent, and then his parents from his home planet of Krypton.

Then, of course, there’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer/artist duo that first brought Superman into the world, only to spend the rest of their lives fighting the equivalent of an epic custody battle to regain ownership rights to their creation.

“The guy lived his whole life never having another big thing, and the one he did have, he didn’t get any money for,” says actor David Deblinger of Siegel, whom he plays in Theater J’s production of “The History of Invulnerability,” about the writer’s lifelong struggle for recognition and compensation.

The play by David Bar Katz takes place entirely within Siegel’s mind, in the hours before his death (he died in 1996). Siegel’s subconscious conjures scenes in the writer’s life, from the time he and Shuster sold Superman to National Allied Publications (now DC Comics) for $130 -- and handed over all rights to the character, and thus all profit -- in the late 1930s to the final moments of Siegel’s life.

But Siegel’s subconscious also dredges up a parallel subplot about a Resistance movement in a concentration camp during the Holocaust that reveals the dark history of antisemitism and oppression that Katz believes played a very real role in the creation of Superman.

When Deblinger first read the play -- which Katz had written specifically for him to star in -- he says he wasn’t sure the story had the emotional heft to warrant bringing the Holocaust into it.

“It’s a very difficult thing to ever touch -- the Holocaust,” Deb­linger says. But many of the iconic superheroes (among them Captain America, Green Lantern and Batman) were created by young Jewish boys around the time of World War II, and Siegel and Shuster were no exception to that rule.

“This is so much bigger than just a guy who never made a billion dollars,” says Deblinger.

As a child, Katz also experienced a contrast between oppression and comic books. “The landscape of my childhood was kind of this mash-up of Russian pogroms and superheroes,” says Katz, 46, who spent much of his time reading comic books at the home of his grandmother, who had fled Russia many years earlier in the face of persecution.

“The fact that these [superheroes] to me came out of this unconscious reaction to the Holocaust, it’s an example of truth being stranger than fiction,” Katz says.

The play is multilayered, with a complex plot. It contains approximately 40 characters who are played by only nine cast members.

Watching an initial run-through, it becomes evident how physically and mentally taxing it can be to transition on a dime from scenes set in the present day to those set during the Holocaust. It does help, though, that Deb­linger starred in the play’s Cincinnati debut two years ago.

“In another scenario it could be a pain,” says Tim Getman, a longtime Theater J actor who plays the role of Superman. “To have an actor who has worked on the play before and no one else has . . . it could be sort of an awkward situation, but David is so useful to have around and open to new ideas.”

Siegel’s public struggle to regain the rights to Superman still remains somewhat unresolved. His story and that of the reality-based concentration camp resistance comprise an intertwined history that Katz, the actors and director Shirley Serotsky feel is particularly important to put before an audience.

Says Deblinger, “There is that notion sometimes that you’re serving something that isn’t just, ‘Look what I can do!’. . . The meaning of the story has something to offer that’s not about the ego of the playwright or the other actors.”