THEATRE / Comic stripping: Paul Taylor reviews Poor Super Man at the Hampstead Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Superman is, on the face of it, an unlikely figure to use as a parallel for a gay thirtysomething Canadian artist who shares his Calgary loft with a black HIV- positive transsexual and who is angling to prise his way into the trousers of a young married restaurateur. So unlike the home life of Clark Kent. But in Brad Fraser's compelling new theatre piece, Poor Super Man - A Play with Captions, the resemblances between the split identity of the comic-strip hero and the paintbrush- wielding protagonist's own divided sense of himself are sardonically highlighted.

In a minority depleted by Aids (most of his friends have already died, and his flatmate Shannon is dying), the artist David (Ian Gelder) identifies all the more keenly with Superman's alien-amid-deceptive-lookalikes status. Drawn as he is to predominantly straight men as a way of evading full homosexual commitment, he too knows the strains of leading a double life. He needs to learn that his love for straight men is a false goal and that perhaps he has been steered in the wrong direction by just those unreal standards of judging what it takes to be an authentic male that are encoded in pulp mythic heroes like Superman.

Authenticity is a big issue in the play, the clash between what we profess and what we can feel parodied in the dissenting captions that are flashed on to the set. And it's the fact that the lays are all grounded on lies (or self-deception) that gives the record- breakingly explicit sex (simulated intercourse, oral sex, buggery etc) an atmosphere of bitterly comic irony and sadness that will come as a disappointment to any visiting dirty mac brigade.

A study, in part, of the predatory nature of creativity, the play shows how, when his muse abandons him, the artist tries to recharge his batteries by moonlighting incognito as a waiter in a restaurant run by a couple of downmarket newlyweds, Matt and Violet (excellently played by Christopher Simon and Kathryn Howden). A hesitant homo-erotic affair develops between the two men, which is uneven in ways that the play is very even-handed about. For while it's true that Matt's attraction to David is partly due to the gratified narcissism of a man who has craved male acceptance (he's sexually turned on by the nude paintings the artist has done of him), it's also true that being a muse has its unenviable side. 'You don't pay the fruit when you do a still life,' is David's bitchily hurt and punningly contemptuous retort when Matt ignobly pledges to carry on the affair if only David will promise not to exhibit the pictures. There's clearly injury on both sides.

Ian Brown's beautifully acted production does expert justice to the play's tart, tricky mode: the pointedly abrupt switches from one short scene to another (whereby, say, the black comedy of Matt's infidelity can be conveyed in a naked, split- second bed hop) and the hard- boiled staccato dialogue and camp knowingness whereby the wounded mask their vulnerability.

With the women, insight is sometimes sacrificed to plot necessity. To precipitate the crisis, the waspish, on-the- shelf gossip columnist Kryla (Elaine Collins) is required to evince an improbably ugly degree of envy at her friend David's new affair. But no play could be called wholly misogynous that contains the following characteristic speech: 'I hate it when men fall in love with each other. It's so much easier for them. All that shit that drives women crazy makes perfect sense to them.'

'Poor Super Man - A Play with Captions' is at the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071-722 9301).

(Photograph omitted)