Gwydion Suilebhan has a humdinger of a topic with his world-premiere play, Reals. Real-life superheroes dressing up in Kevlar and sweeping the streets of evildoers? It’s a subject theatrical dreams (and episodes of Law and Order: SVU) are made of.
Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t get to take flight in Reals, a Theater Alliance production playing at H Street Playhouse through September 16. Barely 80 minutes long, the play falls into a gray area somewhere between superhero caper and psychological drama. The characters spend an overwhelming amount of time discussing the battle between good and evil that lives within us all and the significance superheroes hold in society. “Superheroes. Own. You,” says Girl, played by Brynn Tucker, in a statement that might be news to anyone not profoundly obsessed with the minutiae of Marvel comics and action figures.
Directed by Shirley Serotsky, the play seeks to look inside the minds of “reals,” or RLSHs (Real-Life Superheroes), the type of people who drive up and down Route 29 in a Batmobile, or parade through the bars of New York City seeking to prevent drunk women from being taken advantage of. And the premise is a good one, given the fascinating oddness of RLSHs and their seeming obliviousness to the awkward fact that they have no real powers. In Reals, the clunkily named Nightlife (Andrés C. Talero), and his unwilling partner in crime prevention, Belt (Blair Bowers), however, are all too aware of their own mortality—a fact that leads Nightlife to much soul-searching (and obliges him to wear a protective vest at all times). Belt actually has a skill—she’s gifted when it comes to martial arts—but to her, all the dressing up and scouring the streets for victims is a bit silly.
Things get weirder with the arrival of Sensei (Jon Hudson Odom), a hoodie-and-sunglasses-wearing interloper who claims to have super powers of perception, but who throws Nightlife off course with his apparent lack of consideration for “the code.” And this is where things go awry. What good, after all, is an action thriller without any action? The second scene alone runs almost 30 minutes long, which is an awful lot of time to watch two grown men in costumes debate the moral complexities of being a superhero, especially given that Belt is hiding behind a pile of cardboard boxes for the duration and Girl has seemingly disappeared forever.
Suliebhan raises some interesting questions, such as: What is it that compels people to reinvent themselves as mask-wearing vigilantes? Treated with less seriousness, the subject could have made for great comedy. But the final reveal, a plot twist so bizarre it’s vaguely reminiscent of Dallas’s “it was all a dream” ending, throws a spanner into the play’s extended metaphor about the nature of good and evil. And a scene in which Nightlife finds himself all too willing to torture a woman whom he believes is a wrongdoer feels more gratuitous than insightful.
All four performers commit themselves bravely, particular Tucker and Bowers, who are underused (Belt’s motivation for becoming a RLSH also feels tired, since it seems to imply women can’t aspire to be super without also being victimized first). The few fight scenes by Nathaniel Mendez are effectively and realistically choreographed. But without the gripping structure of a thriller or the gratifying silliness of an authentic superhero drama, this production unfortunately remains firmly grounded.
Reals, a production by Theater Alliance, is at H Street Playhouse through September 16. Running time is one hour and 20 minutes. Tickets ($35) are available via Theater Alliance’s website.