SUPERHERO: Well, Yes and No …


In the ‘50s, many who bought Playboy would insist “I only read it for the interviews.”

So the presence of nudes peppered throughout the issue wasn’t the reason?

Few, if any, believed that.

In SUPERHERO, Vic (Thom Sesma), a sixty-something landlord, claims that he still reads GALAXY MAN comic books solely for the advertisements.

Superheroes, he argues, aren’t real; those sea monkeys hawked on the back inside cover are.

Actually, sea monkeys aren’t monkeys at all, but shrimp. So much for that reality.

Few, if any, will believe him, too. Fewer still will buy what happens in Act Two of this new musical at Second Stage.

It’s the work of highly regarded theater artists. John Logan, the Tony-winning playwright of RED, penned the book and Tom Kitt, the Tony and Pulitzer-Prize awarded composer for NEXT TO NORMAL, wrote the entire score. When one adds in Jason Moore, who directed AVENUE Q, we should at least have a satisfying musical.

During Act One it is one. Much of the audience sent plenty of affectionate and bubbly laughter through the house. Theatergoers easily related to what Vic’s tenants Charlotte (Kate Baldwin) and Jim (Bryce Pinkham) were experiencing.  They too have been nervous when they started talking to someone they’re attracted to … feeling sorry/grateful after the person has agreed to meet … worrying what to make for dinner … trying to mask concern during dinner on how things are going — et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Been there, suffered that.

That Charlotte’s in-house dinner date is played out before her son Simon (Kyle McArthur) adds to the tension. We have no idea how this teen will behave; from what we’ve seen, he’s been a most unruly adolescent.

Charlotte’s first song has her ask “What’s happening to my boy? What happened to his smile?” This is an admissible question for the average mother of the average teenager.

How can Charlotte not know why Simon’s distraught? Two years ago, he was a front-seat passenger in the car his father was driving. They were hit by another vehicle; Simon, inches away from his dad, saw him die.

That should answer anyone’s question about Simon’s smile. It has since been replaced by arrogance and intractability.

So for the last 24 months, Charlotte’s been doing “Laundry for Two,” as she tells us in a fine song, recalling when three family members contributed to the laundry basket. Kitt includes the sensitive observation that one of the shirts she’s now folding was one that her husband had bought Simon. It’s still around; he isn’t.

Much of the time, though, Charlotte must feel as if she’s living alone. In the early scenes, she tries her best to engage Simon in conversation; pulling a full sentence out of him is tantamount to extracting someone’s impacted wisdom teeth with tweezers.

That he’s getting nowhere with Vee (Salena Qureshi), the lass for which he lusts, doesn’t help. He’s hampered by what he knows is a failing: “It’s hard to date a boy who doesn’t speak.”

When a butch guy name Dwayne (Jake Levy) aggressively demands that Vee explain why she’s breaking up with him, we are privy to Simon’s inner thoughts. He’d like to take action but is afraid of being beaten by this macho man.

Vee takes care of herself by loudly telling off Dwayne and punctuating her remarks with finger-stabs to his chest. The bully runs off and Simon feels more inadequate because she fought back while he couldn’t.

But a girl always has an edge in situations such as this, because — at least theoretically – a boy’s hitting a girl is a horribly unsocial act while beating up a boy is what’s expected when a male of any age is challenged. The writers would have been wiser to make this observation.

We do see Simon take action in one instance, when he encourages his mother to date. Not that Charlotte needs that prodding; even before he tries matchmaking, we see that she, an assistant professor of English literature, fancies Jim, a bus driver by trade – although not at the moment; he was recently fired.

That would explain his moodiness, but we get the impression that even in the best of times, Jim’s as wooden as an armoire. “I’m complicated,” he admits. “I’m not used to eating with other people.”

So why would Charlotte take to this catatonic and unemployed mess? We do hear that there’s a terrible man shortage in New York, but how low can a woman go?

You’ve heard of star-crossed lovers? These are planet-crossed lovers.

At one point, they do seem to connect: “You get used to things,” Charlotte says flatly before Jim augments her statement: “You get used to things — and then they’re your life.”

You may rebut that a widow with a teenaged boy can’t be choosy. No – in addition to the way that the authors wrote it, Baldwin plays it and Moore has directed it as if she’s genuinely attracted to this guy.

So with Jim suddenly getting up in the middle of the meal and leaving, we may infer that Charlotte and Jim will now pay the price for violating the New York City “rule” that you should never date someone in your building. Those long waits in the lobby for the elevator will seem eternally longer. So will the ride once they get inside the elevator …

No. Matters become unbearably strange at the end of the first act and more bizarre still at the start of the second. “There is still some mystery about you,” says Charlotte of Jim, and indeed there is – more than she could ever imagine, more than you could, too.

What starts out as a realistic musical becomes thoroughly unrealistic, worthy only of a pre-adolescent comic book. The genial laughter that accompanied Act One was not to be heard again.

Aside from that, there are nagging errors. When Simon is asked how he’d spend his last day on earth, he claims he’d listen to the entire musical catalogue of The Beatles. Would that be the go-to answer for a 21st century teen? It seems more right for a Baby Boomer. The authors are talking, not the characters.

Some of the dialogue becomes scattershot. Charlotte is soon out-of-the-blue behaving terribly to Jim; Simon returns to his obnoxious ways. The missed-target dialogue suggests that Logan had a deadline to meet and anything would do.

Every now and then, a musical makes the mistake of wasting an actor or a character. SUPERHERO does it four times.

Landlord Vic later admits he really does like comic books and superheroes. This suggests that he might be a good surrogate father for Simon. But he disappears.

So do Dwayne and Rachel (Julia Abueva), who’s Vee’s best friend.  The former at least has his one big scene; the latter has virtually nothing.

Vee stays around a bit longer – but not much. She’s interested in heady matters – the environment, the future of the planet. When Simon volunteers to help her, she jumps at the chance for she’s long admired his ability to draw. We’ll see if that means she admires the rest of him, too.

Jim is such a passive role that Bryce Pinkham can only be morose for most of the time. As a result, there are only two roles of any real substance.  Kate Baldwin makes Charlotte the understanding, patient and loving mother we all wish we’d had. Kyle McArthur captures the nonstop angst that Simon must display and holds center stage well with his dynamic near-the-closing number.

Beowulf Boritt has given a clean and handsome set which begs the question why Simon will later call their apartment “a shithole.”

Boritt does make an arresting image by putting the apartment and their New York City skyline view on an angle. It effectively comments on how askew the characters’ lives are in SUPERHERO while inadvertently calling to mind how cockeyed the musical is, too.