At a time when Hitler and his followers were gaining momentum in Europe, a handful of young Jewish Americans were creating a race of saviors determined to protect the vulnerable and oppressed. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and other classic comic book heroes were the wildly successful products of Jewish imaginations in the 1930s, but for Jerry Siegel, the Cleveland native who envisioned the Man of Steel along with illustrator Joe Shuster in 1936, animating a figure of endless strength and power was never quite enough to erase his own feelings of weakness. David Bar Katz’s fascinating new drama, The History of Invulnerability, now playing at Theater J’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, tackles the genesis of America’s favorite superhero and its complex political and moral implications for both his creators and a society that was reluctant to see the battles against evil that needed waging off the page.
A finalist for the 2011 ACTA Steinberg New Play Award and the Acclaim Award for Outstanding Play World Premiere at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Invulnerability is eye-opening, leaping across an impressive array of thought-provoking issues in a single bound. An endearing David Deblinger reprises his starring role as Siegel (Deblinger originated the part at the Cincinnati Playhouse) in director Shirley Serotsky’s production. Though his delivery and emotional impact could use some occasional sharpening, Deblinger owns the role with enthusiasm and believability. His supporting cast, anchored by the almost ever-present Superman himself (an unassuming but powerful Tim Getman), wields its own strength. Ensemble member Brandon McCoy makes a surprisingly significant impression in his few featured scenes; his casually intimate monologues as Siegel’s abandoned flesh-and-blood son Michael (as opposed to his prized ink-and-pulp offspring) are especially poignant. The young Noah Chiet gives off similarly moving purity, often outshining his more experienced castmates (not to mention displaying a far more dedicated commitment to a required accent than some others).
Katz’s script volleys from following Siegel’s frustrating personal and professional ups and downs to revealing the plight of a group of desperate prisoners (Chiet, Conrad Feininger, and David Raphaely) at Birkenau concentration camp. The effect is sometimes compelling—it’s a jarring structural choice that highlights the contrast between Superman’s invincibility and Siegel and the inmates’ fragile humanity. But at other times it feels heavy-handed, excessive, and choppy, hammering at themes that other aspects of the production achieve far more gracefully and with less blatant effort.
With the colorful world of vintage comic books as the dramatic backdrop, the show’s design team had no shortage of creative options here, and fortunately they take full advantage. A paneled wall of screens emulates the frames of Siegel and Shuster’s comics. Historic photos are projected throughout the performance. The stage floor is carpeted in bright graphic images of Superman in his hundreds of forms and evolutions throughout the decades, hitting just the right balance of camp and weighty symbolism (the overall production achieves a similar feat).
Invulnerability would be worth seeing for the jaw-dropping biographical background of Superman and his creators alone (learning that DC Comics purchased all rights to the character from Siegel and Schuster in 1938 for a measly $130, for example). So the fact that this production features a talented cast and memorable staging along with such already rich material? It’s a super achievement all around.
The History of Invulnerability is at Theater J’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater through July 8. Running time is two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($30 to $60) are available through Theater J’s website.
Editor’s Note: This review mentions Noah Chiet, whose father, Cliff Chiet, is president of Washingtonian Custom Media. The writer had no knowledge of this when attending the show or while writing the review.