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Theater Review: “The History of Invulnerability” at Theater J

A new play by David Bar Katz looks at the fascinating, poignant story behind the creation of Superman.

Brandon McCoy, David Deblinger, Tim Getman, Noah Chiet, Conrad Feininger, and James Whalen in The History of Invulnerability. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

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
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
Tickets ($30 to $60) are available through Theater J’s

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.