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Theater Review: “Reals” at H Street Playhouse

Theater Alliance’s world premiere play looks at the world of real-life superheroes.

The real-life superheroes of Reals. Photograph courtesy of Theater Alliance.

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

or parade through the bars of New York
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.

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