According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Men of Steel

A smart satire soured by its own sense of self... How heroic can you get, Men of Steel?

Pictured: Sharon Eisman as Helen Harper and Melissa Paladino as Liberty Lady.

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

I don’t know much about superheroes beyond the obvious faster-than-a-speeding-bullet spiel. I’ve yet to attend ComicCon on either coast, I don’t own a single skivvies-flaunting action figure, and I never, ever run around my apartment in tights and a cape pretending to save the world. Perhaps that last bit isn’t entirely true, but when the batlight hits the Gotham sky, I am not the one to call on for super superhero knowledge. In fact, just the other day I made the apparently unforgivable sin of confusing Spiderman with Superman. And don’t even start asking me about the X Men; I honestly have no idea which one has the scary skin disease. Maybe all of them do? I give up.

Despite all of my DC deficiencies, the Vampire Cowboy Theater Company’s superhero-obsessed Men of Steel is full of jokes that even I can appreciate. With spandex sparkle suits and incredibly elaborate stage fighting (thanks to the unrelenting work of Marius Hanford), the energetic cast of eight takes the stage to play a total of twenty-two characters over the course of two hour-long acts. Qui Nguyen, the playwright behind this superhero extravaganza, has drafted a play with sprawl, and, like Christopher Reeves sailing over the Earth, we go from Chicago to Brooklyn to Mobile and beyond just in time to crash the crooks’ evil schemes.

Nguyen has put a kink in the superhuman schema, though, and soon it becomes less and less clear who the really villains are in this sketch-cum-flesh fantasy world. As the scenes unravel, our good guys do some very bad things, and the world of justice and comeuppance flips on its axis to become one shady place of racial discrimination, public relations ploys, and domestic abuse. Oh where have all the Clark Kents gone?

Men of Steel is by far at its most entertaining and effective when it’s having a good time. The first couple scenes play with the stereotypes, the ridiculous flush-front posture, the stagy dialogue and shadowy figures. Both Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker are obviously fluent in this genre. Their familiarity with the subject matter shines through the jokes, resulting in a clever satire of the whole comic set-up. Paco Tolson, as the loquacious and drill-topped Mole, makes the most of these wonderful moments, relishing the self-satisfaction traditional comic baddies embody and revealing the fabulously fresh ridiculousness behind the common comic tropes.

However, as hilarious as these moments are (and they really are very, very funny), Men of Steel weakens when it segues from satirical to serious. While the play is never wholly without its tongue in its cheek, as the scenes progress, we lose more and more of Nguyen’s insightful humor. Instead, we’re given a heap of ambiguous and overly ambitious moral lessons, including an interesting, though out-of-place and pretentious, oration on the nature of Judas’s role in Jesus’ martyrdom. Yes, comics are often laced with heady themes, but Men of Steel initially feeds on these clich├ęs of the superhero story. It’s disappointing to see the show surrender to the schlock it mocks (even if it does mock with love).

Unfortunately, Men of Steel’s ultimate vulnerability is tone. The show begins as pure wit, but devolves into a series of allegories: Maelstrom (played glassy-eyed and authoritative by Temar Underwood) signifying the restriction of human rights to regulate terrorism in a post-9/11 world, Bryant (extremely disturbing as played by a cross-dressing, baby-faced Tom Myers) is a sort of Neo-Christ punching bag for privileged and prejudiced white rage, Captain Liberty (played with righteous earnestness by Jason Liebman) is the super-ego turned id of America itself. Where is the Mole? I found myself asking after the intermission. I liked the Mole. The Mole knew what he was – good ole fashion evil – and made the most of it.

Please don’t think I’m advocating simple-minded theater at the expense of politically relevant themes. That’s not the case at all. If Men of Steel had set out, from start to finish, to be a critical examination of a post-9-11 world through the guise of a comic book play, perhaps the show would have worked. If Men of Steel had set out, from start to finish, to be a two-hour romp with the sparkly spandex and campy superheroes, that too might have worked. However, Men of Steel instead chooses to straddle its options, mocking all it eventually metamorphoses into. The play fundamentally undercuts itself. And isn’t that something – because in doing so, the play embodies the quintessential trajectory of any hero, from Odysseus to Superman: the ability to self-destruct.

I say see the show for the Mole alone. And if you learn something about Judas in the meantime, well, isn’t that just super?

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Center Stage (48 West 21st Street, between 5th & 6th Aves.)
Tickets (, 212.352.3101): $18.00
Performances: March 15th through April 8th, Thursdays through Sundays at 8pm.

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