THEATRE Poor Superman Royal Exchange, Manchester

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The Independent Culture
"I used to be an axe-murderer - thank God for Prozac." Canadian Brad Fraser's Poor Superman is all about changes, but the one smart-bitch Kryla lays claim to here is among the easier to achieve. What Fraser is most interested in is change across gender divisions and the pain and difficulties involved in deviating from institutionalised definitions of masculine and feminine.

The pivotal figure is David (Sam Graham), a successful gay painter, unhappy and artistically blocked. His friends are journalist Kryla, a woman who has grown a carapace of aggressive masculinity, and Shannon, a febrile transsexual - "the dick's not mine!" - who is dying of Aids. Claiming the need to escape the claustrophobia of his studio, David takes a waiter's job at a diner run by Matt and Violet, a couple as straight as their carrot cake. But when we see - well, sort of - that Matt has trouble coming with Violet, the line of the plot is clear.

David draws Matt towards what might be his true sexual self and at the same time finds in him the muse which compels him to paint again.

The theme of multiple personality and the contending notions of strength and mortality are also indicated by the Superman motif that is worked through the play. Two essays in the unusually interesting programme, one by David Mamet on the Superman myth, and the other by a Native American writer on the appreciation of gender-crossing in Sioux culture, gloss the play's concerns with metamorphosis comprehensively.

Too comprehensively is the trouble. By the time David editorialises, "I don't believe this man-woman thing is the only way to live... I think love needs to be redefined," we have long got hold of Fraser's schema. If the goal of these characters must be that they find happiness and recognition for their own individuality, it is exactly such individuality that is missing. They are illustrations in an argument. Kryla (Harriet Thorpe) is little more than a vehicle for one-liners, Shannon (bravely played by Luke Williams) simply a hand-me-down martyr from Angels in America. The degree to which David, with his predilection for "straight" men, may be lover or predator begins to make him complicated, but this is barely explored save for some vague recollections of - guess what? - sexual abuse.

Ironically, it is the least exotic characters who have the most plausibility and depth. Both Hilary Maclean as Violet, and especially Adam James as the bemused Matt, give committed, urgent performances, and their row when she finds out about David is one scene that does seem ripped from life.

Marianne Elliott's production enhances such qualities, and, especially given Paule Constable's intelligently precise lighting, disguises many of the play's shortcomings. But, as with his Unidentifiable Human Remains, seen here two years ago, Fraser seems too interested in cultivating a hip style of jump-cuts, trash-talk and stagy sensation to take pains establishing human depth.

To 7 June ( 0161 833 9833)

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