The idea that comic books might provide more useful information than
religion for navigating the modern world is a promising one. After all,
during the Bush administration we were fighting the “axis of evil” and
attempting to rid the world of “bad guys” like Saddam Hussein and Osama
bin Laden. And adapting comic-book stories for other mediums has worked
well in movies (Batman/Spiderman/Superman franchises, Sin City, X-Men, Watchmen, et cetera) and on television (Smallville, Heroes).
In the Workhaus Collective’s The Sense of What Should Be at the Playwrights’ Center, playwright/director Dominic Orlando is attempting to do something similar on the theatrical stage—by creating a play based loosely on a comic-book plot. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more difficult to achieve a comic-style suspension of disbelief in a live setting, and the play itself feels trapped somewhere between a teen revenge fantasy and a parable about the evils of young people with just enough information to be dangerous.
Dylan Frederick plays Adam, a 16-year-old super-nerd who is frustrated by his lack of power in the conventional world and turns to comic books for inspiration (since all the great superheroes are nerds at heart). “Knowledge is power” is Adam’s mantra, so he spends his free time gathering as much knowledge as he can. Adam isn’t after book knowledge, though. He’s interested in the sort of information he can use to blackmail the prettiest girl in school into dating him and do battle with the evil forces of suburban conformity. To accomplish this, he convinces a disgraced minister (John Middleton) to share some of the secrets he has heard in confession—information Adam swiftly employs as his secret weapon.
All of which is great, as far as it goes—but this is one of those plays that doesn’t go far enough in some directions, and goes way too far down too many other, less desirable roads. In fact, the first act of The Sense of What Should Be contains an intriguing set-up and introduces the provocative possibility that comic-book justice may be more satisfying and effective than real-world justice. It doesn’t happen, though. There’s also quite a bit of banter about religion’s relevance or lack thereof in the contemporary world, leading one to believe that the play is going to explore the potential usefulness of comics as a guide for understanding a world that has essentially devolved into a struggle between the powerful and the powerless. But no, that doesn’t happen either.
What does happen is a thinly motivated scheme to take over the local hydro-electric dam and hold the city ransom for $10 million in diamonds as “revenge” against the mayor and his stupid-jock son, who dates Marie, the girl Adam fancies. It’s straight comic-book fare, and is supposed to be funny, but when the protagonists don superhero costumes at the dam, things begin to fall apart both literally and figuratively. Which is a shame, because somewhere in this boy-genius-meets-minister-with-an-axe-to-grind tale is an interesting, entertaining play about, well . . . something.
Dylan Frederick plays a great nerd throughout, and he gets some fine support from Joanna Harmon as Marie, the high-school girl he pines for, and Daniel Jimenez as Derek, her boyfriend. But it’s not enough to save the play from itself. In the program notes, writer/director Dominic Orlando writes, “The Sense of What Should Be is about what happens when comic books and pop culture are valued as much as—maybe more than—the Bhagavad Gita and The Bible, for example.” And maybe it is, but it’s not much fun to watch Goliath beat up on David, which essentially what happens when the dominant socio-cultural paradigm comes out on top against a kid with a dream. It’s not like Andy wants to fly; he just wants the pretty girl to notice him.
The Sense of What Should Be continues at the Playwrights’ Center through Nov. 21.