All of us wear masks of some kind, visible or not, but more people in society are literally donning disguises in an effort to help society and fight crime. This unusual phenomenon gave rise to the 2011 documentary Superheroes, which has in turn led to the creation of the Apothecary Theatre Company's well-meaning new play, how i learned to become a Superhero, at T. Schreiber Studio's Gloria Maddox Theatre. Sadly, Dennis Flanagan's muddled script fails to do justice to its potentially fascinating subject.
The 90-minute work focuses on three different, unrelated individuals. The most fleshed-out episode belongs to Tim (Christopher Sears), a 20-year-old who moves from Ohio to New York City with his life-sized blow-up dummy to live with his older brother, Morgan. Still stuck in a troubled childhood in which he and his late mother appear to have been terrorized by his father, Tim insists on prowling the city as his alter ego, Safety Pilot, dressed in red tights, yellow tighty-whities, and a colorful mask. However, since Tim not only doesn't possess superpowers but can barely land a punch, he's none too effective. So it's not altogether surprising that when he gets in the middle of a crime in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the consequences are life changing. Tim's story is actually strong enough to have been the focus of the entire show, especially had Flanagan been more generous with some details and expanded his backstory. Moreover, Sears' portrayal of this sensitive, overgrown boy who truly believes in his mission to save others is so consistently riveting and ultimately heartbreaking that his absence is felt when the play shifts to its other two plotlines.
It doesn't help that neither of the other stories carries an equivalent emotional punch. Certainly we feel bad for the unnamed woman (Gwynneth Bensen) whose younger sister has been murdered and who, as a guardian angel, tries to get a confession out of mild-mannered new neighbor Paul (Curran Connor). But she's not a superhero, just an angry and seemingly misguided person whose life might have been better spent pursuing therapy and a real job.
And it's almost impossible to know what to make of Michael (Sean Logan), who entertains his dying grandmother in a nursing home by reenacting her favorite episodes of Lone Ranger. He then periodically hits the streets wearing that same black mask and calls himself Hope — although his sole good deed is befriending Faye (the believable Christina Norris), a homeless woman. Furthermore, while Michael is apparently gay, that plot element is so sketchily handled that it might have been best left omitted.
It's easy enough while watching Superhero not to concentrate on the show's more questionable elements, thanks to uniformly fine acting from the entire ensemble (which also includes Mara Gannon, Zack Griffiths, Robert Manning Jr., and Carrie Watt, all doing double- and triple-duty with remarkable ease). The comic book-inspired sets by Harry O'Ganan are wonderfully inventive; costume designer Gina Scarnatti does her job well with a limited budget; and director Christopher Klinger keeps the action brisk.
But the lesson to be learned from this production is that good intentions, acting, and design still can never fully compensate for a so-so play.