H.O.M.E (Habitat of Meta-Humans Enterprise)
A new play imagines a prison for adolescent superhumans.
Teenagers have extraordinary abilities: That's not just a cliché from a motivational poster hanging in a high school guidance councilor's office, but the premise of Angélica Rivera and Marvin Z. Tran's ambitious, imaginative, and somewhat disappointing new play, H.O.M.E. (Habitat of Meta-Humans Enterprise), which is being produced by the upstart Unity Theater Company of New York City at the New Ohio Theatre.
Borrowing liberally from popular American mythologies like The X-Men, Rivera and Tran tell the story of a group of teens who have developed superpowers. These "meta-humans" are being confined for study in a maximum security facility: Ezra (Kyle Chua) has the ability to read minds; Charlie (Kat Pena) emits Wi-Fi from her brain; Raine (Shaunté Truick) can hear through walls; and Isaac (David Joel) is irresistible when he turns on his tractor beam of charm. Playing the Ally Sheedy in this superpower Breakfast Club, Desara Gjoni's Harper gets to experience all of their powers by being able to invade and control their bodies. As one might guess, this particular combination of superpowers is more awkward than threatening, especially under the watchful guise of Madam Sculd (Lisa Dennett doing her best Nurse Ratched).
That is, until the arrival of Adam (Esteban Rodriguez-Alverio). Adam claims to be immortal and encourages his fellow meta-humans to fully control their powers rather than allow themselves to be controlled by them. It's all very inspirational to watch them develop, but Isaac suspects ulterior motives behind Adam's supernatural Suze Orman routine.
Rivera and Tran have a lot of important things to say about the abuse of young (specifically black and brown) bodies — about a drive by the ruling class to exploit those bodies while simultaneously fearing their destructive potential. Sadly, that discussion is not as potent as it could be due to a combination of inefficient plot development and an often-lazy production.
The story unfolds through a series of expository monologues from the characters (staged as interrogations) mixed with group scenes showing what everyday life is like in the facility. While director and scenic designer Daniel Echevarria smartly employs a set of easily movable rehearsal blocks to facilitate all the different spaces required, he has bafflingly opted for slow light fades to blackout at the end of nearly every scene. The actors shuffle around in the dark for several seconds before resetting for the next lights up. Not only is this completely unnecessary, but it saps the play of any forward momentum it may have built up in the previous scene.
Compounding this problem, half of the cast phones in their performances and some seem to be having trouble remembering their lines (Larry Johnson's tongue-tied senator is the worst offender). It is not a good sign when our vicarious anxiety for the performers supersedes that of their characters.
Luckily, several of the actors are able to pull us away from this alarming reality: Joel is believably charismatic as the rabble-rousing Isaac. Giving the most authentic portrayal of a teen, Pena is charming as the somewhat reserved Charlie. Rodriguez-Alverio's Adam has the cheerful confidence of someone with a long view of history (because he has literally lived it). Simmering right beneath the surface of his happy-go-lucky demeanor is the barely suppressed sadness of a man who has to ignore a lot of upsetting truths in order to wake up every morning.
Unfortunately, none of this is enough to fully distract us from the fact that this play still feels like it needs a few bold revisions. Rivera and Tran are onto something big, especially in their astute observation that there are usually only two responses to oppression: transcendence or revenge. If they could find a way to grab an audience with that story and refuse to let go, they could have an amazing play.