The most interesting thing about the doggedly earnest, rather dull new musical Superhero is also the most underdeveloped. That is: the actual superhero at its center. The show — which, if it’s super-anything, is super-padded at 130 minutes that could easily have been 90 with no major losses — is a standard domestic drama with genre-flavored icing, though that flavor isn’t nearly strong enough to mask the intense vanilla of Tom Kitt’s music and lyrics and John Logan’s book. Kitt’s got a Pulitzer and a brace of Tonys for Next to Normal, and Logan’s got a Tony of his own for the Mark Rothko bio-play Red (not to mention, where action and adventure are concerned, screenwriting credits on Skyfall, Spectre, and Gladiator), but somehow their collaboration, along with director Jason Moore, has resulted in a well-meaning, flightless tear-jerker, less cool comic book than Hallmark original movie.
The set-up is simple: 15-year-old Simon (Kyle McArthur) and his mother, Charlotte, (Kate Baldwin) live in an apartment building in an unnamed, New York–like city. They’re both still broken in their own ways by the death of Simon’s father Mitch — it happened two years ago in a car crash, and Simon was there. Charlotte, an English-lit professor, tries to put on a happy face but is floundering on a book she’s been attempting to write about the poet John Clare, while Simon skulks around moodily with his red hoodie up, spending most of his time out on the fire escape in the refuge of his imagination. He and his dad loved comic books, and he’s busy filling sketchbooks with comics of his own, especially, as he describes to us in Superhero’s opening number, “The Adventures of the Amazing Sea-Mariner.” (“The Sub-Mariner’s cousin,” he explains, presumably accounting for the redundancy of his hero’s name.) Life for Simon is comics, avoiding talking about his dad with his mom, and crushing on the hip environmental-activist girl at school named Vee (Salena Qureshi). That is, until he notices — and sings about — “The Man in 4-B.” This cryptically shy dude’s name is Jim (Bryce Pinkham), and one day Simon sees him flatten a fire hydrant with a single punch. Could it be? Is there a real-live superhero living in their very building? Simon does what any excited kid would do: He bullies his mom into flirting with Jim in order to suss out the neighbor’s true identity.
Setting aside the super-sketchiness of that for just a second, let’s talk about Jim. Here’s the thing: Simon is right! Not only can Jim turn fire hydrants into tinfoil, he can evanesce into a beam of light and zap himself halfway across the world in the blink of an eye. “I’m from another planet,” Jim grudgingly admits, once Simon catches him in the super-act. “My home world is beyond this galaxy. The beings from my planet are dispatched to other worlds to help those in need. It’s our calling, our only purpose for existence. We assume the appearance of the people native to the planet, but we’re invulnerable to any injury. Once we leave our home world we can never return, and we go alone.”
Wait, wait, wait — I have … so many questions. So, does that mean there’s only one Jim on Earth? Are there not enough Jims on Planet Jim to send, like, a couple more our way? Is a Jim like an elephant or a redwood tree — do they take a really long time to gestate or ripen or whatever? Why can they never go home? Is it some kind of moral choice or do the other planets infect them or make them physically unviable on their own home planet or something? Why bother assuming human form? Why not just stay in energy form, constantly zapping from one catastrophe to the next? Wouldn’t that be more efficient than living in an apartment and driving a bus for a living and then grabbing your head in agony when you hear an internal chorus of voices from somewhere else in the world crooning, “Help me! Help me!” and then running up to the roof to zap off to wherever the voices are coming from? (Why the roof? Do you zap better from higher ground?) Wouldn’t those voices presumably exist in the thousands of millions at every nanosecond of every day? How do you prioritize? Do you hear the voices right before the bad thing happens or as it’s already happening? Why do you have human emotions, Jim? I hear that you’re depressed because being a superhero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and you can’t stop all the bad things, only some of them, because you’re only one superpowered energy ray okay BUT did the human emotions come with the human body or did you already have feelings on your home world? How many other worlds are there? If you’re invulnerable to injury can you never die and if you never die does that mean the Jim population will just keep growing and eventually maybe Earth could get more Jims? Hey Jim, are you actually just a shy, sad, lonely man with possible mental differences, telling a story to a kid who seems to need a story?
I spent a whole lot of Superhero waiting for the answer to some version of that last question to be “Yes” — honestly, hoping that it might be, because that would be something resembling psychologically interesting. But it’s not. Jim really is Super. And also super-awkward and sad. (Simon, by the way, doesn’t ask any of my questions, but does want to know if Jim has a “secret cave” and a “kick-ass car.” Still no.) Like Trigorin to Nina, Jim tries to explain the thankless overwork and demoralizing glamorlessness of his life to Simon in a song called “It’s Not Like in the Movies.” Pinkham delivers it gallantly, giving about as much real feeling as possible to lyrics like, “And you can’t cry / Though you hurt / You are always on alert / And though you try, and you fly, people die” — but though his furrow-browed performance is the best part of the play, he’s (super-)powerless to save it. And despite the fact that Pinkham makes Jim’s anthem of disillusionment into one of Superhero’s better songs, the idea of it still sits weirdly. “It’s absolutely nothing like any superhero movie, or comic book, or video game, or anything else you ever saw, ever,” Jim insists to Simon, but … There are a lot of movies out there, man. And plenty of lurking, disenchanted superheros. I hate to break it to you, but you’re basically Superman meets Jessica Jones, sans drinking problem, plus zapping.
Super-unique or not, Jim turns out to be an empty center anyway. The play never explores any of the infinite possible wormholes it’s opened up by dropping a half-baked invulnerable alien smack into the middle of things without batting an eye. It’s more interested with earthly matters: Will Simon win over Vee and stand up to her oafish ex-boyfriend Dwayne (Jake Levy)? Will Charlotte and Jim find a chance at domestic happiness together? Will anybody ever bother to make the surly-but-goodhearted landlord Vic (Thom Sesma) or Vee’s selfie-taking friend Rachel (Julia Abueva) actually necessary to the story?
It’s not just that Superhero’s concerns are insistently mundane — it’s that Kitt’s songs fail to strike any new sparks off familiar flint. Baldwin — who sounds great and is giving the material her all — has to sing not one but three songs whose generalized lyrics boil down to: Gosh, life is confusing and hard. “How did we both end up here? / … And where do the answers lie?” she ponders in “What’s Happening to My Boy?” Then, “How did this come to be? / So much has happened so fast,” she opines in “Laundry for Two.” She really turns a philosophical corner in “In Between,” as she asks Jim, “Do you ever feel like you’ve lost who you were? / You examine your life and nothing makes sense / Days, weeks and months, they go by in a blur / And you cannot find the present tense.”
I once did an experiment where I captured every line Legolas speaks in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and put them all back-to-back in one sound file. They could believably be one long generally elf-y speech (of roughly three minutes in length). Poor Charlotte’s got the same problem. For an expert in Romantic poets, she’s sure not given much poetry — or even much plain old variety — to sing. And she’s pushed into putting the moves on Jim by her teenage son, who snaps at her, “Listen, this is how it works, you are so ignorant: The only people who get behind the superhero’s mask are the women they date!” I guess we’re meant to laugh this off because Charlotte and Jim end up genuinely attracted to each other, but if I were Charlotte and inclined to asking, “How did we get here?” I’d be asking it about the fact that my son thinks it’s cool to call me ignorant and to use me as a pawn. Meanwhile, he’s spending his time at school singing boilerplate Prince-Not-So-Charming–in-training numbers like “I’ll Save the Girl,” as he fantasizes about rescuing Vee from Dwayne’s clumsy molestations. Not even Tal Yarden’s charming projections — in which bouncy comic-book scenarios sketch themselves into being on Beowulf Boritt’s tilted, multi-framed set — can make this song fun to watch. Of course it’s got a 2019 climax in which Vee fends off Dwayne all on her brave little lonesome and Simon sighs over her ability to take care of herself: “She is fearless and courageous, the kind of hero I could never be!” But the fact is, although Vee might get a badass moment given to her by some well-meaning male creatives, the song still belongs to Simon. So does the show.
Ultimately there’s something downright creepy in Superhero’s messaging, something that goes beyond the stale sentimentality of Charlotte’s climactic plea to Simon to “remember Superheroes / Can be folks who keep their feet on the ground / … Whose superhuman strength is just to face another day / In a world where people hurt / And fathers die.” It comes back to Jim, who “[has] to make choices” about whom he saves — who, with that in mind and no further questions answered about him, is essentially random chance embodied. Or, God. The play is skirting unpleasantly close to “Everything happens for a reason” territory, to the snug, deadening notion that there’s someone kind and powerful looking out for us, even if that someone “can’t save everyone.” That strikes me as a singularly soft and useless notion, but despite Jim’s claims to novelty, Superhero isn’t attempting to feed us anything we haven’t digested dozens of times before. It’s feel-good theater, only living up to its title in that it keeps all of us extremely safe.
Superhero is at Second Stage through March 31.