It is playwright David Bar Katz’s singular insight that Superman, like the other extraordinary men and women of the comics – Batman, Spiderman and the like – were primarily the creation of Jewish writers and artists. (Batman’s creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Captain America’s creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, and Spiderman’s creator Stan Lee were all Jewish men who changed their names to something more Anglicized.)
Moreover, there is a certain commonality to their stories (father killed in a crime; a secret identity) which also reflected the Jewish experience in the then-modern world of 1938 when Superman was born.
The curator for these observations is one Jerry Siegel (David Deblinger, doing outstanding work), who along with artist Joe Shuster (David Raphaely) created the Man of Steel. Superman (Tim Getman) cross-examines his creator, and so teases out the story of his own genesis. Siegel admits – with a certain amount of pride – that Superman is in fact spiritually a Jew, born of a tribe of men and women with Jewish names (Jor-el and Lara were Superman’s parents) and, as a defender of truth, justice, and the American way is a particular hero to all Jews, who are victims of lies and injustice, in America and everywhere. Superman is the unstoppable Golem of legend, but better; he is a thinking superhero, in control of himself.
Siegel and Shuster, like Esau with his birthright, sell their rights to Superman to DC Comics and Harry Donenfeld (Conrad Feininger) for a mess of pottage – in this instance, for a $130 check (the release of rights was on the back). The History of Invulnerability is thus, in its least interesting sense, a bio-play, focused on Siegel and Shuster’s largely unsuccessful efforts to recover control of their creation after signing it away.
Deblinger is enormously likeable on stage, and he does his best to make Siegel sympathetic in this, but the history of creativity shows us that it is usually not the person with the idea who succeeds, but the one who turns the idea into production. Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but he discovered how to manufacture them cheaply via the assembly line, and now his family will live in wealth until the Sun swallows the Earth. Ditto Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both of whom improved on processes developed at IBM. Siegel’s complaints about the consequences of signing away his rights eventually sound like whining, and his and Shuster’s disastrous decision to sue the copyright holder contributed significantly to their subsequent careers as a postal clerk and porn illustrator, respectively.
But when the play takes on our relationship with Superman, it is profound, even brilliant. Living in a swamp of ambiguity as we do, where evil seems to perpetually prevail and our enemies always seem to have the upper hand, who of us has not imagined a superhero buddy who could set things to rights by melting evildoers’ guns with his heat vision and thereafter tossing them in the clink like so many gum-wrappers thrown into the trash? Could he not sort things out in Syria, even today? And for Siegel, there was a ready-made villain on the world stage: Adolf Hitler, the worst man in human history. DC Comics was reluctant to move Superman into the war in Europe (the US was not yet a combatant) but Siegel used an opportunity for a two-page spread in Look Magazine to send the Man of Steel through enemy lines and deliver a satisfying sock to the Führer’s jaw.
Superman is certainly a hero to Joel (the fabulous Noah Chiet), a child reading on his bed at Auschwitz. He dreams that someday his superhero will arrive at the death camp, terrifying the Nazis and carrying the Jews safely to home. Saul (Feininger), an older man sitting in the cell with, believes that God will send His angels to the same purpose. We dream of our heroes. Benjamin (Raphaely) is more practical; he is planning a breakout. We dream that we are our own heroes. But not every dream comes true.
Bar Katz brilliantly juxtapositions the longings of Joel, Saul and Benjamin with Siegel’s struggles to show the high stakes. “Superman” is not merely some overwrought fiction; it is the howl of every Jew who has helplessly struggled as his wife is beaten by anti-Semites, or his family is torn apart by a pogrom, and, more generally, everyone who has struggled fruitlessly against injustice. The Theater J production gets this, and director Shirley Serotsky relentlessly maneuvers the play to show off its strongest aspects. Serotsky’s best work is with her longtime collaborator Getman, who gives us an unanticipated Superman: knowing and sardonic, he pricks Siegel’s self-importance at just the right moment, and has a self-deprecating air borne more of honest self-appraisal then of conventional modesty. This is not the Superman we know from the comics, but it is the one that Bar Katz wrote, and Getman and Serotsky deliver.
So does the production. The crisp, spot-on performances (including Jjana Valentiner, Alyssa Wilmoth, Brandon McCoy and James Whalen in multiple roles) maximize the play’s strengths, and makes the play’s climax – about which I will tell you nothing – profoundly moving. If you had never heard of Superman, if you had never picked up a comic book in your life, it wouldn’t matter. The History of Invulnerability speaks to the troubled yearnings of the human soul. If you have one, it will speak to you.
The History of Invulnerability
By David Bar Katz
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
DCTS interview with Tim Getman on playing Superman