Harvey Pekar, the real-life protagonist of "From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes . . . American Splendor," writes comic books in his spare time. But they're not your ordinary comic books. Since they chronicle passing episodes in his life as a government file clerk in a Cleveland hospital, he explains, they're very much "atypical in content."
Indeed, the curious cartoon strips that Pekar has been publishing at his own expense since 1976 -- and which have now been adapted for the stage by Lloyd Rose -- depict a strange, often surrealistic world of drifters, oddballs and failures. Most of them are lonely, deluded, down on their luck or just plain bonkers. That they're going nowhere -- where, after all, do you go in Cleveland? -- is perhaps the point.
As the inaugural presentation of Stage Four, a three-play showcase of new American works at Arena Stage, "American Splendor" certainly serves the purpose of getting the company back to the kind of offbeat, experimental fare it has neglected in recent seasons. Pekar's comics have earned him a devoted cult following and in some circles, at least, he has been compared to Chekhov and Dostoevski.
Still, a little of "American Splendor" -- say about 30 minutes -- is enough to communicate the sense and flavor of things. More than that and you are apt to identify all too strongly with Pekar when, surveying the terrain, he fumes, "I wish I could freak out. I wish I could have a nervous breakdown just to get out of the routine." Despite flashes of zaniness and occasional puddles of poetry, the ultimate drabness of this universe prevails in the end.
If you want a literary antecedent for "American Splendor," which is being presented through Nov. 22 in the Old Vat Room, I'd suggest Gogol, who also understood the folly and would-be grandeur of the lowly bureaucrat. Pekar's Cleveland seems to have a lot of "The Lower Depths" about it. That may be due, in part, to Michael Franklin-White's set, which surrounds Pekar's unmade bed with the detritus of civilization. But it's also because checkmate and claustrophobia stalk the production, as Pekar, artist and flunky, shuttles between work and home, wrestling with his existential doubts.
A disheveled Richard Bauer endows the man with the angst of one who both loves and hates his singularity, relishes and curses the human rejects around him, and exults in his writing even as he questions its worth. Normally Bauer shines in this kind of role. But the character is terribly downbeat, not to say whiny, and Bauer's performance doesn't have much comic leavening. Pekar's eccentricities are infinitely more peevish than they are enlightening.
The script interweaves a dozen or so stories -- some no more than incidents -- for which Pekar also serves as narrator. They all have a distressing tendency to trail off and leave you waiting for the revelation or the punch line that would give them some dramatic kick. But no.
Pekar suffers the visit of a boorish friend from New York who sponges off him, as we're told he would. He goes for a bus ride and records the philosophical musings of the two drivers on board. With some effort, he manages to seduce a zonked-out babe and afterward wonders why he bothered. Later, he tries to play Cupid, introducing the cashier of the neighborhood movie house to a dealer in old books. But nothing comes of that, either. At the end of the second act, he meets the woman who will become his third wife. She goes to bed, while he wonders if, years from now, anyone will know or care who he was.
One of the doctors in the hospital, an aged Jew, is forever collaring Pekar to tell him ethnic jokes to put into his comic books. The books, it appears, aren't yet selling that well and need juicing up. The trouble is, no one gets the old man's jokes. Similarly, "American Splendor" has the feel of a two-act shaggy dog story. In more ways than one, its theme song could be "What's It All About, Harvey?" Our hero puts it differently. "Things get bad, then they get worse, then you die," he muses in one of his less outgoing moods.
Because they are not saddled with so much ersatz metaphysical baggage -- only lunatic ideas and nutty obsessions -- the characters surrounding Pekar are far easier to take. There's a slew of them, deftly played by six actors who are kept fairly busy all evening long changing wigs and outfits. Old girlfriends, secretaries, doctors, patients, janitors, nerds and curmudgeons -- they come and go, inadvertently providing Pekar with grist for his mill.
Director James C. Nicola views them with affection, as well he might, and underscores their idiosyncrasies with sweet invention. Once you get away from Bauer's performance, in fact, the staging is actually rather buoyant. As with "Greater Tuna," watching the actors undertake so many quick-change roles can be entertainment in itself.
Brigid Cleary's battiness pays off nicely in her role as a hospital worker who went around the bend so gradually that "by the time she was crazy, everyone was used to her." Isiah Whitlock Jr. scores as the opinionated Mr. Boats, whose remedy for a cold is "get yourself some cold water and suck it up your nose." And Anderson Matthews amuses as the joke-telling doctor, even if his jokes don't.
Fred Strother, Richard Grusin and Carolyn Swift are no less diverting in their various incarnations. I fear it's Pekar, a junk-food Hamlet in secondhand clothing, who throws a pall over the proceedings. "Lousy," he informs us at the outset is his normal state. You better believe him.
From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes ... American Splendor, based on the comic books by Harvey Pekar. Adapted by Lloyd Rose. Directed by James C. Nicola. Set, Michael Franklin-White; costumes, Noel Borden; lighting, Nancy Schertler. With Richard Bauer, Brigid Cleary, Richard Grusin, Anderson Matthews, Fred Strother, Carolyn Swift, Isiah Whitlock Jr. At Arena Stage's Old Vat Room through Nov. 22.