Comic book and unrequited love roll around on the carpet in Noah Mease's new play.
Two Michaels, one comic book. Those are the basic components of playwright Noah Mease's Omega Kids, a production of New Light Theater Project at Access Theater. It's a slow boil two-hander about comic books and their ability to bring people together…or not. We keep expecting the subtext of Mease's guarded dialogue to bubble to the surface, but it never does, making this show feel like an abortive night of romance.
Michael (Will Sarratt) is sleeping over with Michael (Fernando Gonzalez) at the unfurnished apartment the latter Michael shares with their mutual friend, Liz. First Michael is obsessed with comic books, specifically the Omega Kids series. Perhaps knowing this, second Michael has purchased issue 13 from a bargain bin at a local comic book store. They sit on the carpet of an empty room while first Michael explains the intricacies of the plot. Initially, second Michael mostly watches and responds, "Yeah?" Eventually, little details about their lives slip out, like second Michael's childhood bouncing from one foster home to the next. He doesn't dwell on these points for long, and the conversation always reverts back to comics until the two characters are literally falling asleep onstage. Unfortunately, we also struggle to stay awake.
This is despite competent performances from the two actors: Sarratt enthusiastically describes the minutiae of Omega Kids as if he really cares, pausing for emphasis and covering his face with his hands when he thinks he's about to give away a major spoiler. Wearing a shy grin and a curl of hair dangling just between his eyes, Gonzalez stares at him with eyes that implore, "Let's continue this discussion with our clothes off."
These layered and specific portrayals still cannot compensate for the fact that the Michaels have been written as millennial stereotypes, lubricating their speech with "like"s and dispassionate "yeah"s to the point where their dialogue is so flavorless, it becomes a chore for us to listen for the subtext.
Mease (who is also an immensely talented prop designer, having worked on Annie Baker's John and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) has designed one essential prop to augment his play: issue 13 of Omega Kids. It is dark and beautifully illustrated, full of mysterious twists that make us want to read on. It is so well-produced that placing a copy in the hands of every audience member before such a meandering play proves to be a mistake as viewers crack open the comic and begin reading during the show, hungry for plot. They are justified in this: Taking place over the course of a sleepless night, the book mirrors the action onstage, but with a lot more lightning and magic.
Perhaps riffing off the antiseptic feeling of the script, director Jay Stull stages the play in an austere black cube: The audience sits around the perimeter like med students in an operating theater, while the action takes place on a thick white carpet in the center. Beyond issue 13, the only other objects in the room are a ceramic lamp and a backpack. Scenic designer Brian Dudkiewicz has created a sealed environment that feels safe and comforting, like a cocoon of blankets and pillows. Tei Blow's soothing ambient music rises and falls in the background, while lighting designer Scot Gianelli bathes everything at a pleasantly incandescent glow. It all feels like a high-concept spa for nerds.
This insulated playpen (Dudkiewicz encases the room in actual acoustic foam) gives the characters an opportunity to frankly discuss a number of fascinating subjects, like the enduring appeal of superheroes to queer fans, the disappointment of adulthood, and the pressure to fit into a letter in the ever-expanding alphabet soup that is LGBTQIA. Still, both of them seem so restrained by social anxiety that we never feel like they are fully expressing their true feelings.
Mease isn't the first playwright to dramatize the inability to verbalize desire. His frustrated characters hark back to Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. But while the eventual disappointment in Gonzalez's face is heartbreaking, the low stakes of the event prevent it from ever being tragic. No Laura Wingfield, we know that second Michael is going to be fine: He's a cute, intelligent guy in his early 20s who has survived a lot worse. We imagine that he will look back on the time he wasted pining after a likely asexual man and laugh. Unfortunately, Omega Kids leaves us feeling so sedated, we aren't likely to look back on it at all.