Absolutely Super

Brad Fraser has undoubtedly lost friends after they've seen his plays. The young Canadian playwright has a deserved reputation for cutting dialogue, vicious characters and, not incidentally, an ability to paint a startlingly accurate picture of gay life in the big city. All this, he readily admits, often springs from autobiography. Best known for his successful Unidentified Human Remains and the Nature of Love, which played everywhere from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to Los Angeles, Fraser's most recent work Poor Super Man opened last week at Theater LaB in a bright and bullet-fast production.

With a production history that most new writers can only dream about, Poor Super Man has traveled the same international circuit of alternative theaters that Unindentified Human Remains did, and bears the honor of a protest from the Cincinnati vice squad, which attempted to shut down a production because of its frank treatment of homosexual relations. Protest is always good PR for theater -- the end result was that Poor Super Man made Time's top ten list of best new plays in 1994.

Set in contemporary urban Calgary, the play revolves around five characters -- Matt and Violet, who own a restaurant; David and Shannon, an artist and a transsexual who share living quarters (though not a love life); and Kryla, a bitchy newspaper columnist who's been friends with David for 20 years. Divided between studio, bedroom and restaurant space, the stage alternately provides venues for working, sex, fighting, sex, dying and painting. Marrying the best of Fraser's snappy dialogue ("I did my best writing when I was a virgin," says Kryla. "Life's a barter system") with a cut and paste structural technique, Poor Super Man is likely to leave the audience a bit breathless, though highly engaged. A writer who knows how to write for the theater is rare; an intellectual who writes for the theater is even more so. Luckily, Fraser is both.

The play's story centers on David, a successful painter who's been unable to produce work since his last show. He's famous, he's rich and he's desperately unhappy. Shannon, his housemate, is HIV-positive, and his best friend, Kryla, is always, as he puts it, under his feet. David is that strange mix of character who earns an audience's disgust as well as their admiration: he's manipulative, self-concerned and occasionally nasty. He's also, as wryly played by Rodney Walsworth, very funny. David decides he needs work to inspire him, so he gets a job as a waiter at Matt and Vi's Monterey Diner.

As a background for every scene (except Shannon's direct address to the audience), Fraser has incorporated subtitles that indicate mood, suggest subtext and reveal deceit between characters. When Matt offers David the waiter's job, a subtitle flashes "connect," and the conflict the play rides on is established. As in Unidentified Human Remains, Fraser writes about romantic love as a fleeting and often selfish moment that has nothing to do with lasting promise. Matt loves Violet, yet Matt also falls easily in love with David. Part of Fraser's message is that women are more willing to believe in the fairy tale than are men, a point illustrated by Violet's unquestioning, and at times painfully naive, trust in her husband.

One of the qualities that earns Fraser admittance into the realm of master craftsman is his ability to make divine the smallest moments of human contact. "Do you ever fantasize about other people?" Violet asks Matt, who, in reply, lies and says, "No." "Do you?" he queries. "No," she answers truthfully. The message is driven home by a subtitle that says, simply, "No." It's a wrenching scene, and because the audience knows more than Violet, they also know just how much she has to lose: her husband, her dignity, her belief in marriage.

The difficulties in directing a work as quick and contemporary as Poor Super Man are multitudinous. Because Fraser's scenes are so brief, there's always the problem of meshing the end of one scene with the beginning of the next, as well as charting how to get actors on- and off-stage or, as is frequently the case in this play, in and out of bed. Ed Muth's direction is successful, and at times inspired. Hung in David's studio is a window frame that all the characters but Violet have the chance to peer through. It's a simple gesture, looking through a second story window out onto a street, but one that's seldom seen in plays, and Muth has directed those moments well. The one element that holds this production just short of brilliance, however, is the up-and-down lighting scheme that nearly blacks out after even the briefest two-line scenes.

The cast is remarkably strong and bright: Anne Quackenbush is witchy and incredibly vulnerable as Kryla (and yes, that's an allusion to the Kryptonite that weakens Superman); Paul Nicely exudes a believable bisexual virility as Matt; Adrian Cardell Porter is simply beautiful as the half-finished girl-man Shannon; and as Violet, Celeste Cheramie is sweetly uncompromising. This well chosen cast makes it easy to understand how these five people love and hate one another.

The current of comic books and Superman throughout the play is not an incidental device. When Matt, falling for David, asks "Who are you?" David replies, "I'm Superman." If women are more easily wooed by a fairy tale picture of romantic love, Fraser points out, then men are just as easily taken by the myth of superpowers: strength, infallibility and immortality. "What's wrong with David?" Kryla asks Shannon. "Why won't he talk to me?" "Because he just figured out he can't leap buildings with a single bound," Shannon replies. I can think of many plays that have attempted to use popular culture as an allegory; I can think of none that do it as well as Poor Super Man.

The glory of Theater LaB's production is its dedication to a tough luck story. The triumph of the play is Fraser's idiosyncratic blend of humor and pathos. And as is his style, the end brings no restoration of former (however deluded) happiness, no real redemption and no solution. Depressing? Not really. What Poor Super Man offers is definitely real, and worth more than a whole season's worth of well-constructed plays that have little in common with contemporary life.

Poor Super Man plays through August 4 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.

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Megan Halverson