By Ron Fassler . . . 

The memory play is a fairly common staple of American drama, especially ones with a grown narrator stepping in and out as they participate in their own past (Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is always in the back of every playwright’s mind). Ian Eaton’s Superhero, which follows this standard trope and which opened off-Broadway at the Sheen Center—and presented by Houses on the Moon Theater Company—last night, is based on his own story of growing up with immigrant parents in Harlem’s Manhattanville Projects. It makes for a mixed evening of theater since, on the one hand, Eaton has a story to tell that has the makings of something interesting and exciting. On the other, his writing doesn’t make the case that an audience will care to engage with it.

SJ Hannah, Bryce Michael Wood, Jeorge Bennett Watson

Lacking in sufficient conflict and drama, the play’s director, Warren Adams, receiving a co-credit for developing Superhero, could be part of the problem. An argument can be made that a fresh eye is needed—one not inside the story that’s able to ask the tough questions about what does and doesn’t work in its dramatization. Plot details leak in drips and drabs, resulting in the story not progressing very far by the end of its first act. The lights dim on the reveal of a gun, which sadly portends a predictable second act to come. It’s surprising none of these basic faults have been rectified, especially with a dramaturg listed in the program (Renée Flemmings). The night I attended, there wasn’t much buzz created by what the audience was seeing on the stage. Sometimes a quiet crowd isn’t so much listening as taking short naps.

Jeorge Bennett Watson, Bryce Michael Wood, SJ Hannah

Naming its lead character after himself, young Ian first appears as a five-year-old (played by the adult Bryce Michael Wood). He matures to a teenager after the off-stage death of his older brother, Barry (SJ Hannah), the victim of street violence. His parents (Valisia Lekae and Jeorge Bennett Watson) are cast as other characters in the play as well, everything from Ian’s fellow students to his teachers. After his death as Barry, SJ Hannah returns to portray Steve, a bully who becomes the violent catalyst that forces Ian to figure out if he has the makings of a superhero, even without the cape his mother has made for him to wear as a child. If this reads as high stakes, it doesn’t come off that way on stage. It all feels slight, although that’s no fault of the actors, who work well as an ensemble. It’s just that they must struggle to breathe life into fairly thin characters, which is an uphill climb.

Valisia Lekae, SJ Hannah, Bryce Michael Wood, Jeorge Bennett Watson

As Ian, Bryce Michael Wood works hard as a five-year-old to convey the mixed emotions that swirl inside the head and body of a curious young boy. It’s not altogether successful. He does better as the teenage Ian, assuming the awkward gait of a young man in puberty. Sadly, the writing doesn’t offer a means to deepen the characterization. As his older brother, I enjoyed what SJ Hannah did in physicalizing Barry, but sadly, the character isn’t around very long. Rounding out the quartet of actors are Valisia Lekae and Jeorge Bennett Watson, who fare better in that they are allowed to play a variety of grown-ups. The women and men they inhabit, even in short bursts of stage time, do satisfy.

Credit to a simple and effective set by Lawrence E. Moten III as well as an effective music and sound design by Ronvé O’Daniel and Jevares C. Myrick. But in the end, Superhero stumbles in flight.

Superhero. Through May 1 at the Frank Shiner Theater at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker Street, between Bowery and Lafayette). Two hours with one intermission. 

Photos: Russ Rowland