Look, up in the sky!

A new play by David Bar Katz looks at the fascinating, poignant story behind the creation of Superman.

'The History of Invulnerability' 390 (photo credit: Stan Barouh)
'The History of Invulnerability' 390
(photo credit: Stan Barouh)
WASHINGTON – The History of Invulnerability, the latest play to grace the Washington JCC’s Theater J stage, traces the fascinating story of the Superman origin myth – not the superhero’s birth on planet Krypton, but his creation by the imaginative Jewish dreamer Jerry Siegel, who wanted to transcend the prejudice in pre-WWII America and Europe.
Set against a well-crafted backdrop evoking the story blocks of comic books, the play flips between Siegel’s real biography and the figment of his imagination – Superman in the dramatic flesh – who has become a more vital and historic force than the schlubby Siegel himself. Though all of the acting is strong, David Deblinger as Siegel and Tim Getman as Superman (and occasionally Clark Kent) are outstanding.
Deblinger is reprising his role from the play’s premier in Cincinnati; Theater J’s staging is only its second production.
Other real-life characters join in and fill out the story, including Siegel’s artistic partner Joe Shuster, publisher Harry Donenfeld and Jolan Kovacs, who first modeled as Lois Lane before eventually becoming Siegel’s wife.
The play is gripping as a telling of social history and an exploration of how Jews’ other-than and less-than status in America gave rise to a new type of artistic expression: superheroes, outsiders who transform into invincible beings who can set right the wrongs in society. It was not only Siegel who did this, though he did it the best. The later inventions of Batman, Captain America and Spiderman were also the products of Jewish creativity.
Playwright David Bar Katz uses historical events to flesh out his depiction of Siegel’s character, using the 1915 lynching of the Jewish Leo Frank in Georgia as the basis for an early Superman exploit to save a man from a similar fate; elsewhere he details how Superman was an agent for fighting the Nazis during the course of the war.
Yet Bar Katz makes an unfortunate choice when he decides to leap wholeheartedly into the world of historical fantasy with a subplot involving concentration camp prisoners contemplating their fate while a young inmate awaits Superman and salvation.
The recurrent break-aways to Auschwitz drag down the development of the story and introduce a maudlin, false cast to the entire performance. Its role in the ending is ghastly and out of keeping with the rest of the play, making it a discordant conclusion, to say the least.
The Holocaust motif also implies that the truth of Siegel’s story is not sufficiently dramatic or emotionally intense enough to reach viewers, a point that trivializes the main dramatic arc of the play. In fact, Siegel’s tragic reckoning with Donenfeld and the rights to the creation he and Shuster naively signed away – forfeiting fortune and creative freedom for both of them – is deeply resonant and stands on its own. Additionally, the subtler Jewish echoes in the pair’s work and experience are evocative and moving.
Worst of all, the use of the Holocaust – especially as the play’s parting shot – also means that the work ends up emphasizing Jewish victimhood, rather than the triumph of the Jewish spirit that was the driving force behind Superman’s creation.
Through his creation of a hero who heals the world through physical strength and devotion to justice, Siegel asserted Jewish vigor rather than weakness. It is too bad that an otherwise signal tribute to Siegel’s genius and struggles ultimately fails to celebrate this achievement.