It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s ... too much irony in Jerry Siegel bio-drama

June 13, 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.

Wren is a freelance writer.

The History of Invulnerability

by David Bar Katz. Directed by Shirley Serotsky; lighting design, Dan Covey; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; properties, Andrea “Dre” Moore; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; fight direction, Paul Gallagher. With Jjana Valentiner, James Whalen and Alyssa Wilmoth. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through July 8 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.

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