THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN NEATO-MAN
at the Bop Shop
Absurdfish Productions' The Adventures of Captain Neato-Man reminds me of the things my brothers and I would make up when we were kids, hopping from the couch to the coffee table as if we were leaping across rooftops in pursuit of dastardly criminals. Timothy Scott Harris's one-hour play, about a modern superhero drafting a very reluctant stranger as his sidekick, occasionally captures the sweet silliness of child's play, but unfortunately the tender humor is coupled with a more adolescent fascination with sex--sometimes funny but often overdone.
Having lured the meek and mild-mannered Larry to his apartment under false pretenses, Neato-Man--wearing underwear over black tights, a cape made from the American flag, and beach shoes--bounds energetically across his living room, trying to persuade Larry to become "Horatio," his sidekick. Touchingly reminiscent of childhood is the seriousness with which they debate the existence of superheroes. Larry doesn't believe in Neato-Man, but he's aghast when Neato-Man asserts that there is no Superman or Aquaman. The tug-of-war between reality and fantasy climaxes in a food fight, with Larry and Neato-Man bombing each other with Butterfingers and Hershey's Kisses.
There's an equally natural flow to the scene in which Larry is seduced by one-time tramp Trixie, now "a born-again virgin." Trixie reasons that by pretending to be the childhood sweetheart of the imaginary Horatio she can be pure again. If Larry will only be Horatio, he'll get a voluptuous yet virtuous girlfriend. Both Trixie and Neato-Man make a good case for creating truth out of make-believe.
Such fine moments are overridden, however, by dull humor and forced cleverness. A latent attraction between the boyish superhero and his domineering mother would have been enough to suggest the would-be crime fighter's twisted psyche. But Harris takes it over the top with mother-son sexual games called "the old lady and the intruder" and "feather," with lots of cawing and screeching sounds from offstage. Portrayed as an uninteresting lech, Mother also sets her cap for Larry, and jokes like "I'll love you like you were my own son" and "I breast-fed [my son] for the first five years" lack subtlety, just weighing down the script.
It's cute that Harris's characters create their own sound track, yelling "Don, da da don!" to emphasize a superhuman feat and humming the theme from Chariots of Fire for the magic moment when Larry and Trixie's eyes meet. But used too often and too loudly the gag loses its impact and reveals itself to be a weak substitute for well-constructed dialogue.
Under Gregory Werstler's direction the production swings from loud and frenzied to calm and revealing. Ian Christopher plays Neato-Man with sweaty hyperactivity, and as Mother, Anne-Marie Akin speaks in obnoxious tones and with continually gyrating hips. The more they yell, the more it seems their characters have nothing to say. Fortunately, Jemal Diamond's Larry holds his ground against their screaming madness with quiet strength--it takes something special to inject such genuineness into what is essentially a stock character. Beth Stephenson plays Trixie somewhere in the middle, knowing how to use shrill tones for a sweet character. Her voice drips sincerity as she professes her love for Larry in a heavy New York accent on their first meeting; then with admirable comedic timing she slips into artificial tones that reveal the shallowness of their "relationship," saying robotlike, "I love to frolic. Oh, how I love to frolic."
Complete with a moral about living life to the fullest, this performance really does have the feel of a children's production. And sometimes that's charming: the low-budget living-room set looks like it was bought at a thrift store; Trixie, wearing an ultrashort polka-dot dress, looks like a walking cartoon; and the slightly pudgy Diamond, dressed in a spandex suit, inspires giggles. The players even manage to stir up some magic when they turn a plastic toy gun into a superhero laser weapon and an ordinary phone into a hot line to "the commissioner's office." With less adolescent humor, and played a little softer, the childlike Adventures of Captain Neato-Man would make a good, light adult comedy.