The Cincinnati vice squad showed up along with the opening-night audience for “Poor Superman,” the latest ultra-explicit drama by Canadian scribe Brad Fraser. Most of the buzz in Ohio has centered on the nudity and explicit sexual content in the five-character drama, but sensationalism misses the true significance of this event. With the premiere of this remarkable play, Fraser demonstrates that he is becoming a major new force in North American play writing. Commercial prospects in major urban markets are excellent.
Fraser’s main strength is simple: He never bores his audience for a moment. His rapid-fire writing is thrilling and exciting, keeping the most jaded theatergoer at constant, full attention. His signature style is highly cinematic — scenes are usually short, dialogue is often clipped, and naked bodies are never far offstage. The dramatic action cross-cuts from locale to locale, typically whizzing the audience from one bedroom to another. For the twenty- and thirtysomethings who are Fraser’s chief constituents, this style of theater is a happy revelation. Even in Mapplethorpe-busting Cincinnati, hip young people are packing the house.
“Unidentified Human Remains,” Fraser’s equally provocative previous effort, had all of these stylistic niceties but was criticized for lack of substance. It ultimately floundered Off Broadway. Fraser has not left himself open to such carping this time around — “Poor Superman” is a much more thoughtful and serious work. Shot through with such contemporary demons as AIDS, loneliness, economic struggle and personal repression, Fraser’s often cynical play has a lot to say about modern life and love: “How did I ever drown in someone so shallow?” moans the troubled main character, a clear mouthpiece for his creator.
A love triangle lies at the heart of the play. A successful gay painter, fighting a variety of personal demons and looking for new artistic inspiration, takes a job at a struggling restaurant in his (and Fraser’s) home town of Calgary. There he meets the young married couple who own and run the joint. Before long, the supposedly straight husband finds himself sexually attracted to the painter/waiter, much to the horror of his homophobic (and soon-to-be-jilted) wife.
Mixed into this troubled urban stew are two other rich characters: The painter’s roommate is a gentle soul craving a sex change but unable to fight the ravages of AIDS; his best friend is a middle-aged and caustic gossip columnist, embittered by her inability to find a good, straight man. These five troubled souls collide on the city fast track like bumper cars.
The audience is treated not only to the characters’ words and actions, but also to their inner fears and deepest insecurities, courtesy of a large screen within Ronald A. Shaw’s split-location set that projects “yes” when the character actually is saying “no.” The device works much better than it reads in print, probably because Fraser is exposing the lies that almost everyone in his audience has, at some time or another, told.
The play’s title comes from the constant references to the comic-book character. Like the equally fictitious people in the play, Superman found himself reluctantly revealing his true identity to a woman — before ultimately succumbing to a mysterious and inexplicable disease. Fraser argues for personal truth and integrity in place of our typically unrealistic expectations.
And the play resoundingly rejects traditional definitions of love and relationships. “Eighty percent of what our parents told us was wrong,” says one character. “And the other twenty was immoral.”
The tiny Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati struck gold with this important premiere. Director Mark Mocahbee does a serviceable and appropriately fast-paced job with the play, although many of his local casting choices are inappropriate — Shannon Rae Lutz, for example, turns the role of the wife into a shrew that anyone (gay or straight) would leave, missing the vulnerability and sensitivity of the character.
Elsewhere in the production, many of the actors struggle with Fraser’s elliptical style — the one outstanding performance comes from Damian Baldet as the restaurant owner.
“Poor Superman” could be refined. The gossip columnist character needs further development and motivation and some of the melodramatic plot manipulations toward the end do not serve the play well. But this is still a remarkable piece of writing.