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Ryan Bronz and Nina Hellman in Superpowers
(Photo © Jeff George)
In What Every Woman Knows, J. M. Barrie incorporated an eventually famous line about charm: If a woman has it, she doesn't need anything else, and if she doesn't have it, nothing else helps. Plays, however, don't necessarily require charm. There's nothing charming about Long Day's Journey Into Night, for example, nor should there be. Occasionally, however, a play comes along that embraces charm. It casts an amiable spell and delights as it illuminates. Such a play is Jeremy Dobrish's Superpowers. It's deeply charming, which isn't at all to say that it's cloying or terminally whimsical or insubstantial.

That a play as entertaining and yet melancholic comes from Dobrish, who established the go-its-own-way Adobe Theatre Company in 1991, isn't surprising. I've always had a feeling that there's something about the man I hadn't quite put my finger on. With Superpowers, it's finally occurred to me, and the revelation has to do with his surname. I now realize that "Dobrish" has always sounded to me like an adjective. So here's a definition: playfully intelligent, deceptively probing and, yes, charming.

Put succinctly, Superpowers is dobrish. (Incidentally, on the program's title page both the author and director Jessica Davis-Irons have their names printed entirely in lower-case letters.) The piece is a contemporary fairy tale for adults, and that's another unsurprising choice for the playwright: Some years ago, he took "The Handless Maiden" by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm as one of the sources for his Weltanschauung.

In writing Superpowers, Dobrish has referred to the classic tale of the woodman and his wife who squander their three wishes and who, in doing so, imply the wisdom of Saint Teresa's warning about being careful when wishing because the wish might materialize less than fortuitously. (This admonitory story shows up in many countries and in numerous versions; one of the funniest is included in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, edited by W. B. Yeats.) The playwright has taken some liberties with the three wishes. He divides them among a septuagenarian widower named Abe (Stan Lachow), a troubled young woman named Cathy (Christy Meyer), and a woefully shy fellow named Jonathan (Ryan Bronz). These three not-so-well-wishers are discovered sitting atop a long table at a police station where officer Marlene (Dana Smith-Croll) is weeping while officer Don (Arthur Aulisi) reads out loud information about a car crash in which an old man ran down a plain woman and a naked man.

Immediately, Neal Wilkinson's precinct set is pulled into the stage left wing to reveal a sparse gray and blue living room. Sam, the first of the three people unseen by the cops, tells his story and we see it acted out. After arguing with son Sam (Aulisi again) about hating the isolation of a wifeless old age, Sam allows a friendly dog called Kalef (Margie Stokley) into his apartment. When Kalef has gone, Sam looks into a bowl from which the dog had drunk and sees himself as a young man. So he runs out, buys a Porsche and -- exhilarated behind the wheel -- hits a female pedestrian.

Following two returns to the precinct, where further evidence comes to light, the other two characters fill in their recent past on the blue-and-gray set that's been only slightly rearranged. Estranged from husband Evan (Jeremy Brisiel), Cathy is visited first by sympathetic chum Dana (Nina Hellman) and then by that same wish-bestowing canine. Suddenly beautiful, Cathy races out into the street, where she's struck by a speeding Porsche. Jonathan, who adopts the ubiquitous Kalef and then bumps into Dana with her pet Woofer (Brisiel again) at a dog run, wishes that he could be invisible in order to get along in the world. Wanting to be visible again when Dana says that romance with a man who isn't there isn't for her, he's restored to his naked self just as Sam barrels along in that lethal vehicle.

The moral is clear, just as it has been through the centuries. For anyone who might miss the point: After the three hapless figures have told their tales, the teary policewoman Marlene says, "No point in wishing. What is, is." Nothing new is vouchsafed here, but what makes Superpowers so arresting is the fragrance of the new wine that Dobrish has poured into an old bottle. Nice touches proliferate, starting with the policewoman crying over what she intuits has been a sad confluence of events -- this despite her not understanding how the old man who thought he'd been literally rejuvenated, the young woman who thought she's been made beautiful, and the young man who thought he could run around nude because he was invisible came to be in the same place at the same time.

It's also clever of Dobrish to have concocted stories reflecting questionable contemporary longings for youth, beauty, and acceptance -- and to have overlapped the stories as he does. Two examples: Abe, in his youthful state, meets and has sex with the glamorized Cathy (yes, the encounter is reported), while dog-lover Dana meets Jonathan shortly after leaving Cathy. Dobrish's reminder that we're all in this together is subtle but pressing.

The charm of Superpowers, with its worried message delivered out of recognizable concern, doesn't stop at the script; rather, it infuses every aspect of a production that Jessica Davis-Irons directs, well, charmingly. The production benefits from Neal Wilkinson's set with its clean-lines divan and table and Dali-esque turntable, Michael Gottlieb's lighting, Meganne George's costumes (when nude, Jonathan appears in flesh-colored drawers), and Jill BC DuBoff's sound design (we hear Frank Sinatra's recording of "You Make Me Feel So Young" more than once).

All of the cast members meet J.M. Barrie's requirements. They're a group of good-looking folks doing what actors often do when they're in something that's lighthearted on the surface: They portray the characters truthfully but they also convey the fun they're having in delivering Dobrish's bright lines and carrying out the amusing actions that he calls for. Margie Stokley's Kalef has a funny wiggle in her walk and Ryan Bronz's clinically bashful Jonathan is all painful sincerity. Stan Lachow has the tremors as the grieving Abe but sheds decades when he's reclaimed his young manhood. Christy Meyer's Cathy is furrowed when convinced that she's plain (though there's nothing plain about Meyer) and joyful after she's turned gorgeous. Nina Hellman has an appealingly chipper edge as Dana and Jeremy Brisiel uses his resonant voice with aplomb as Evan, the romping Woofer, and Don (who appears in an Abe flashback). Arthur Aulisi and Dana Smith-Croll are versatility itself, but it's a shame that no wigmaker is credited with abetting Smith-Croll's various looks.

All right, there is something less than perfect about Superpowers. The title refers to the central characters' sudden prowess but, in its single-word bluntness, it lacks this production's magic. On the other hand, maybe it's apt in that Dobrish's work is superpowerful.

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