Crossovers between theater and comic strips/comic books are nothing new, even on Broadway, from Annie and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to the misbegotten Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark. But with Omega Kids, comic-book writer and artist Noah Mease and director Jay Stull have concocted a show with a different twist. It’s an intimate, meditative two-hander about the deep resonance of comic-book superhero stories with the kids who read them – and with the 20-somethings those kids quickly become.
The production has a lot going for it. First, the scenario is interesting. Two people both named Michael, not long out of college, spend a night together at one’s apartment after having become acquainted at an intensive conference. One Michael (Fernando Gonzalez) is avowedly bisexual, the other (Will Sarratt), though a label-shunner, is more or less gay. Sexual tension hovers throughout, as the emotionally raw second Michael endeavors to connect with his cool-headed counterpart through sharing his heavy emotional investment in a fictitious comic-book saga called Omega Kids, about – what else? – teens who discover they have superpowers.
As this Michael is also on the cusp of a life change, about to begin a new job in another city, and as the other Michael affects disinterest and lives with a female roommate, there’s a gnarled edge and an achy awkwardness to the budding friendship-or-more. Sarratt’s turn is especially vivid as he squeezes out his feelings with a shy stare (and a slyly moving foot).
Director Stull makes excellent use of the Gallery Space at the Access Theater, staging almost the entire action on “cool” Michael’s living room carpet, with tension and mystery added by Scott Gianelli’s artsy lighting, Eben Hoffer’s evocative sound design, and ghostly music by Tei Blow. The tiny audience surrounds the set in a single row, staring down into the action as if right there in the room.
Yet with all the tension and mystery, and though the characters are deftly drawn and ring painfully true, payoff is missing because the action lacks narrative momentum. A plot doesn’t have to lead to resolution for the characters, but the action needs to create sustained engagement for the audience. Instead, the play repeatedly builds scenes that draw us in, seem to be arcing towards something, but then float off into the ether.
Sure, that’s how real life goes often enough. The play and the production do an excellent job of conveying the hesitancy, indecisiveness, and half-measures that define so many human connections and relationships. But enhanced realism isn’t enough without a compelling narrative to keep us on board. Artfully written and staged, well acted, and complete with a real Omega Kids comic book (which I recommend taking five minutes to read before the play begins), Omega Kids the play is more ruminative than theatrical, frustratingly so because of the talent and skill that’s gone into it.