Theater Review - Arch humor

Fantasy sends comic characters into real world

I doubt that Weird Comic Book Fantasy, having its world premiere at Dad’s Garage Theatre, is as good a play as Archie’s Weird Fantasy. Archie’s Weird Fantasy came first, with playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa taking the perpetual high schoolers of Archie Comics into adulthood and some of the darkest corners of 20th-century America.

But the day before the play’s first performance, Archie Comics Publications sent the theater a cease-and-desist order, requiring the playwright and Dad’s Garage to change the character names to avoid legal action. Thus the play now is known as Weird Comic Book Fantasy, starring carrot-topped Buddy Baxter of Rockville High. You can still recognize the famous roles despite their new monikers, but given the play’s fever-dream fascination with pop iconography, the difference diminishes Fantasy’s force.

The production finds the ideal flesh-and-blood image of the timeless teenager in Matt Horgan. Taking the stage with the Archie’s song “Sugar Sugar” in the background, Horgan captures the character’s Opie Cunningham look as well as his boy-next-door decency. As Buddy, he introduces us to his gals and pals, including junk-food junkie Tapeworm and arrogant bully Freddie (George Faughnan in both roles), spoiled brat Monica (Stacy Melich) and penniless goody two-shoes Rosie (Alison Hastings). You need a pretty long memory of Archie lore to recognize whiz kid Dilton in “Herbert Humphries” (Rene Dellefont), a young genius who happens to be the first boy Buddy ever kissed: “You did know I was gay, right?” Horgan perfectly deadpans.

The play swiftly follows Buddy to college, where he studies to be a writer while starting a relationship with his brainy roommate, Nathan Leopold (Steven L. Emanuelson). Behind Buddy’s back, his lover is teaming with another young prodigy, Richard Loeb (Dan Triandiflou), to perpetrate their notorious “thrill-killer” crimes.

Aguirre-Sacasa doesn’t mean to mock Archie as an all-American icon by having Buddy kiss men or be a bystander to the Leopold and Loeb case. The playwright clearly identifies with Archie as a person and means to test the character’s fundamental good nature. A kind of Archie Agonistes, the play takes Buddy through challenging coming-out and coming-of-age experiences, with Leopold and Loeb being the worst gay role models imaginable. Throughout the play, Buddy’s difficulties pressure him to leave the real world for the painless joys of “Rockville,” here a metaphor for the closet.

Buddy eventually moves to Manhattan, shares an apartment with Tapeworm, Monica and Rosie, and gets a job writing for EC Comics, publishers of such grisly but groundbreaking comics as Tales From the Crypt and Weird Fantasy. Buddy’s career coincides with the comic book witch-hunts of the 1950s — which points to the play’s fluid approach to history. Leopold and Loeb committed their crimes in 1924, hearings linking comics to juvenile delinquency were held in 1954, yet the play’s action takes place in the approximate present, allowing references to e-mail and dance club music to be a part of the action.

Buddy and company also face serious health care crises, including a life-threatening pregnancy and an AIDS-like disease that strikes comic book figures, beginning with “a loss of pigmentation.” Director Kate Warner carefully navigates the play’s changes in tone and dark subject matter, which constantly threaten to overwhelm the action. The diverse pieces eventually fall into place, but the Leopold and Loeb scenes belong in a more purely serious play.

Fantasy makes references to Our Town, It’s a Wonderful Life and even Rosemary’s Baby, yet it feels most true to itself when it touches on the tension between comic book life and reality. Buddy finds a nice boyfriend in Jerry Youngman (Emanuelson playing a thinly veiled Jimmy Olsen), who reflects on how he prefers the risks of living in Manhattan to his former home in Metropolis, where he felt like he had a guardian watching over him.

Certainly the cast gives funny impersonations of the characters, with Melich archly delivering Monica’s bitchy one-liners and Faughnan cheerfully bingeing on burgers as Tapeworm. Doyle Reynolds and Dan Triandiflou provide two terrific, silver screen-style supporting performances as Buddy’s back-slapping father and EC Comics’ bombastic editor William Gaines, respectively.

The show’s maiden weekend saw humor in the cast adjusting to the last minute change in names, like when Hastings called to “Archie — Buddy? Somebody?” on a telephone. It’s like the kind of theatrical inside joke Dad’s Garage would do on purpose. But since the play relies so heavily on Archie as an icon, yet takes the character through so many changes, hearing the name “Buddy” further separates the classic character and the playwright’s ideas, muddying waters that were far from clear to begin with.

Weird Comic Book Fantasy might benefit from a longer set-up in Rockville, giving the audience a stronger foundation in the comic milieu before the play deconstructs it, as not everybody knows Archie as well as the playwright. But apparently we don’t know Archie at all.