Television's mutant family of talk shows has effectively bastardized the theater's long-sacred belief that one person's emotional odyssey is appropriate subject matter for an audience's shared catharsis. But not even Jerry Springer's warped view of the human condition can compare with the shock-value tactics of Canadian playwright Brad Fraser. In fact, Fraser's Poor Superman, with its graphic language, full-frontal nudity and simulated sex, was initially considered so controversial that the board of directors of a theater located in Springer's former hometown of Cincinnati briefly banned the play's scheduled world premiere.
The leadership of Cincinnati's Ensemble Theatre eventually permitted Poor Superman to be presented when its own artists demonstrated in support of the play. Fortunately for local audiences, Theatre on Broadway's current production of the drama is presented under no such cloud of controversy. Under the innovative and insightful direction of Nicholas Sugar, Fraser's play comes across not as a chair-swinging brawl but as an engrossing saga of five dispossessed people who manipulate one another (as well as the audience) from all sides of every issue. And despite Fraser's tendency to drown his characters in adolescent language and behavior (Fraser's parents were fifteen and seventeen when he was born; they divorced when he was twelve), Sugar and his top-notch cast manage to hold us rapt for the better part of two and a half hours, mostly because the performers highlight the spare poetic passages that Fraser has sprinkled amid his otherwise blunt and bare-fisted dialogue.
As the action begins, David (David Russell), a middle-aged gay artist mired in a creative lull, decides to reawaken his creative muse's humble beginnings by applying for a job as a waiter at a Denver diner. As luck would have it, the married couple that owns the restaurant, Matt (Zachary Brown) and Violet (Meredith Davis), hires David and takes an instant liking to his droll sense of humor ("How Shane," says David when one character makes a particularly down-home remark). As a result of his newfound inspiration, David soon sets his hand to painting the sort of cutting-edge canvases that won him local acclaim in the past. Trouble is, he takes the symbiosis thing a little too far: He uses his physical relationship with the sexually confused Matt as the basis for a provocative show of autobiographical paintings. And even though David's HIV-positive transvestite roommate, Shannon (Austin Green), seems supportive of David and Matt's relationship, the painter's tough-talking, miniskirt-wearing sidekick, Kryla (Trina Magness), seems genuinely hurt by his love affair.
Fraser punctuates his script with numerous scene headings and captions (words such as "Connection," "Alone" and "Childhood" typically frame the play's more pithy moments), which Sugar cleverly translates into brightly colored video titles that appear on the screens of five television monitors strategically placed above and behind the stage. At first Fraser's subliminal messages are annoying, especially when one of Kryla's first lines (a scatological pun asserting that anyone born with a vagina is doomed to a lifetime of bad luck) indicates that the remainder of the drama will leave little to the imagination. But as the story unfolds, Sugar's deftly placed subtitles serve to amplify Fraser's underlying theme that people who deviate from society's norms nonetheless experience the same basic desires and thoughts as do "normal" people. The only difference, Fraser asserts, is that his misfits can't bear to suffer in silence, choosing instead to brazenly curse their way to acceptance.
Russell's portrayal is the most fully drawn, as well as the most sympathetic of the lot. For much of the play, the talented actor balances David's passion with the character's razor-sharp wit. Among Russell's best moments are his eloquent, funny remarks about the contributions of gay people to society. And the actor's often hilarious rendering of the tormented artist is thankfully free of clenched-fist-to-forehead cliches--as is, for the most part, Green's treatment of Shannon, the long-suffering, cross-dressing queen. That Shannon's plight and subsequent demise are somewhat dated (the quality of care available to AIDS patients has improved considerably in the four years since the play's premiere) doesn't diminish the artistry of Green's sensitive portrayal.
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As the deep-voiced, always-on-the-make Kryla, Magness is at her believable best, even though her character would probably be more at home in a tougher, rawer urban setting such as New York City. And Brown and Davis are an appealing set of young lovers whose mercurial relationship manages to set off fireworks at both ends of the love-hate spectrum.
Poor Superman is definitely not for the faint of heart or those seeking a more mainstream-minded evening of entertainment. Sugar's well-conceived production invariably forces its audience to confront an uncertain and hostile world in which acts of intimacy are both shocking and dangerous. And while Fraser's characters are not always easy to watch or listen to, the result of their labors is eminently more relevant to contemporary life than the televised fakery that David would no doubt characterize as "so Jerry Springer."
Poor Superman, through June 13 at the Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 860-9360.