Theatre Review: ‘Reals’ at Theater Alliance

Andrés C. Talero as Nightlife and Jon Hudson Odom as Sensi. Photos courtesy of Alliance Theatre.

Let me make a confession. When I found out that Theater Alliance’s world premiere of Gwydion Suilebhan’s Reals was yet another tale of superheroes, I cringed.  Movies, TV shows, theatre productions—Americans seem desperate for that supernatural force born from a mosquito’s prick to save us… from ourselves. Result: Superheroes are an epidemic spreading like malaria throughout the cultural landscape.

I’m happy to say that Mr. Suilebhan understands this obsession, and that his new play addresses the phenomenon straightforwardly and with serious intent. Well, not really straightforwardly, but Reals raises serious questions about our world and how we personally want to deal with the violence we foster.

The premise seems simple enough. Jack, or as he prefers to be called “Nightlife” (played by Andres C Talero), has decided to form his own gang of superheroes, or rather average folks who want to think of themselves as superheroes. He has recruited Lanie, or as she doesn’t want to be called “Belt” (played by Blair Bowers), because—in addition to her Black Belt in Karate—she has the ability to recognize the truth when it’s told to her. As the play opens they are preparing to interview a new recruit who goes by the name “Sensei” (played by Jon Hudson Odom): he has super senses—he can smell the presence of a hiding woman from twenty feet. And then there is “Girl” (played by Brynn Tucker). We are introduced to her at the opening curtain as a sleek, dynamic purple avenger who, in a bit of 4th-wall-breaking fun, sets us straight about our mania for mythical delusions.

If that premise seems simple yet quirky and a bit off, that’s because it is. Reals teeters along a fine edge between a zany “Batman and Robin” poke-fun-at-itself storytelling and a sinister “24” torture-the-bad-guy psychosis. Sometimes you will laugh at the blanket absurdity of Jack’s obsession; at other times, you will pity his perversion and his inability to deal with the reality of his life. Occasionally, you will find yourself puzzling through the real world implications that this gang of superhero wannabes initiates. But you will always wonder where the realism of the script’s situation ends and its comic book world begins.

The design team led by director Shirley Serotsky did a great job using the H Street Playhouse as a found space. The environmental scenography by Steven T. Royal Jr. (sets) and Stephanie P. Freed (lights)—complete with stacking crates, work lights, and a large warehouse door—gives the play its realistic base. The thrust stage plops the play’s action right in the audience’s lap. Kendra Rai’s costumes convey that difficult line between realistic situation and comic book fantasy that this play demands. The superhero costumes of Nightlife and Girl allow us to imagine the supernatural whereas the costuming of the “reals” keeps us grounded yet interested. Fight Director Nathaniel Mendez offers up a wonderful bit of stylized Zap, Boom, Pop, which in H Street’s intimate confines is no small feet.

Andrés C. Talero as Nightlife and Blair Bowers as Belt. Photos courtesy of Alliance Theatre.

Most of the time, Mr. Suilebhan gives the tale’s tightrope just the right amount of tension, and the story progresses brilliantly. This is particularly true in scenes involving Sensei. Mr. Odom gives his inexplicable sunglass-shaded manipulator an infectious dynamism. As he toys with Nightlife, probing the limits of his capacity for violence and empathy, we are drawn into the play’s psychological underbelly. Mr. Talero’s Nightlife does well capturing his character’s emotional fragility and leads us to wonder just what he might actually end up doing. Ms. Bowers’ Belt is a bit more ambiguous. From the beginning we experience her down to earth practicality and the fact that she has genuine feelings for Jack (Nightlife), but the deeper mysteries of her character remain hidden from us, despite the fact that the script repeatedly draws attention to them. Finally, Brynn Tucker’s “Girl”—flashed at us with brilliant force in the show’s opening monologue—is not given an opportunity to reveal the essence of that flash, leaving us wondering.

‘Reals’ teeters along a fine edge between a zany “Batman and Robin” poke-fun-at-itself storytelling and a sinister “24” torture-the-bad-guy psychosis.

And that, in the end, is Reals’ most glaring flaw. In his notes to the audience Mr. Suilebhan states: “We need to ask ourselves why all this violence is happening…” His Reals provides the perfect opportunity to explore that vital yet difficult terrain through a cultural lens with which American audiences are all too familiar.  The play’s driving action is none other than to unearth and expose the psychological roots of vengeance as justice. Unfortunately, after the script bursts open that door and we look out over that twisted vista of fear and hurt, the script stumbles and stops short. We see the fragility that provokes violence and that violence engenders, but we never get a chance to know the source of that fragility as it is made manifest in the characters Mr. Suilebhan has created. Given this script’s serious intentions, and the curiosity that Reals’ story successfully provokes, the audience deserves no less.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

Advisory: Recommended for mature audience because of subject matter.

Reals plays at the Theater Alliance through September 16. The Alliance Theatre is located at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street, NE, Washington DC. For more information and tickets call 202-241-2539 or click here.