I love comic books. I’ve been reading them for over 25 years and have amassed a rather substantial collection. That’s one of the many reasons why I absolutely adore Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Golden Age, an imaginative romp that starts from the premise that Archie Andrews, the perpetual 16-year-old star of the popular comic book series, has finally graduated from high school and moved away from home.
In the play, he’s known as Buddy Baxter (Christopher J. Hanke), and all of his childhood pals also get new names. Jughead is now Tapeworm Smith (Michael Chernus), while Betty and Veronica are Rosemary Hope (Sarah Elliott) and Monica Posh (Tami Mansfield), respectively. Archie’s rival Reggie is known here as Freddie Battle (Christopher Kromer), while the resident nerd of the Archie set, Dilton Doiley, is reimagined as Herbert Humphries (Greg Felden).
Golden Age has similarities to recent theatrical efforts that have taken beloved childhood icons and reworked them for adult audiences. Avenue Q successfully transformed Sesame Street‘s neighborhood to reflect the concerns of today’s twenty- and thirty-something generation, while last year’s FringeNYC hit Dog Sees God aged Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters into their teen years. Aguirre-Sacasa puts his own spin on the concept as he sends his characters on a reality-warping journey; they interact with historical figures and, in some cases, change the outcome of events.
Buddy, while going to college in Chicago, meets and falls in love with Nathan Leopold (Patch Darragh), who becomes his lover and roommate. This is the same Nathan Leopold who was infamously associated with Richard Loeb (Cameron Cash); the thrill killing duo were responsible for kidnapping and murdering a boy named Bobby Franks in 1924. Buddy’s involvement alters some aspects of their story but does not change everything.
Five years later, Buddy moves to New York and starts writing for E.C. Comics, a company best known for its line of horror and science fiction titles. He gets in on the ground floor and becomes a target of a moralistic campaign, led by Dr. Frederic Wertham (Charles F. Wagner IV), against the comic book industry for corrupting the values of America’s youth. The historical 1954 Senate investigation prompted by Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent is also re-enacted here, with Buddy at the center of events.
As indicated above, the time period of the play is constantly in flux. Intentionally anachronistic elements are thrown in, and the action spans decades even as the main characters only age about 10 years. When a mysterious disease — in which the color drains out of a person and their insides turn to pulp — begins to affect Buddy’s circle of friends, the audience comes to realize that these lapses in continuity may be symptomatic of a larger crisis that threatens not just Buddy but the entire universe.
Hanke is superb as Buddy, lending the character a bouncy personality and earnest demeanor. Darragh is fine as Leopold and even better as Jerry Youngman, another of Buddy’s love interests, based on a character from a different comic book series. Cash is appropriately creepy as Richard Loeb, and Felden is another standout as both Herbert and Al Feldstein, one of the editors at E.C. The rest of the cast members are good but not always quite as sharp in their portrayals. Claire Lundberg’s direction is inconsistent. Certain sequences of the show are delightfully staged, with a vibrant energy and campy sensibility; others are more unfocused, and the intermission comes at an odd place. (The three-act play is here divided into two parts, with one intermission.)
Golden Age is awash with in-jokes and plot elements from a number of different comic book sources. Aguirre-Sacasa is himself a comic book author; he currently pens the monthly adventures of The Fantastic Four and the X-Men’s Nightcrawler for Marvel Comics. (The first issue of his F.F. series is used as a prop in the show at one point.) The third act of the play is listed in the program as “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” which was the title of the groundbreaking DC Comics series of the 1980s that re-wrote the history of the company’s characters. The playwright also borrows an idea from comics scribe Grant Morrison, during whose stint as the writer of Animal Man the eponymous superhero discovered the terrifying truth that he was actually a comic book character. Animal Man’s secret identity, by the way, is “Buddy Baker” — not a far cry from that of Aguirre-Sacasa’s hero. While theatergoers who are not well versed in comic book lore will inevitably miss out on some of the jokes in Golden Age, the play’s accessibility is greatly increased by smart writing and crisp, funny dialogue.