In one of his famous illusions, Harry Houdini’s hands were bound and he was locked in a steamer trunk, which was then locked in a cabinet. A few minutes later the trunk was reopened, and poof! The great magician had “vanished.”
The act, called “Metamorphosis,” was “never just a question of escape,” explained Michael Chabon in his best-selling novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
“It was also a question of transformation.”
A panorama of escape and transformation, in which war, art, love and a passion for comic books molds the destinies of the colorful title characters, Chabon’s “Kavalier & Clay” is a big, exhilarating, rewarding read as it scans a pivotal period in American pop culture and world history.
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But could this 600-plus page Pulitzer Prize honoree, with a sprawling narrative that shuttles a reader among New York, Europe and the polar wastes of Antarctica over two action-packed decades, be transformed into satisfying theater?
Five hours after strapping myself in for Book-It’s world-premiere stage version of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” I had my answer: Yes.
In several acts (with two intermissions and a union-mandated dinner break in-between), director Myra Platt, adapter Jeff Schwager and a nimble, note-perfect cast unlock the heart of Chabon’s saga, in one of Book-It’s most ambitious (and best) productions since “The Cider House Rules.”
Though the book has necessarily been pared to its essential narrative (Act 1 could stand a few more trims), it retains enough savory detail, dialogue and drama to give Chabon’s multifaceted story of two Jewish cousins and collaborators a captivating, pulsating stage magic.
We’re introduced to brash Brooklyn boy Sam Clayman, later Clay (David Goldstein), the night he meets his relative and new bunkmate, Josef Kavalier (Frank Boyd), a refugee from Nazi Eastern Europe.
Goldstein’s fast-talking go-getter and Jerry Lewis sound-alike Sam, an underling at a novelty company, is the yin to the yang of Boyd’s introverted, watchful Joe, a trained artist. But their partnership and friendship clicks, as they concoct a new superhero they hope Sam’s skeptical boss Sheldon (Richard Arum) will turn into a comic-book phenom.
Called The Escapist, and inspired by the Golem of Prague (a Hulk-like figure from ancient Jewish folklore), and the legendary Houdini, this daredevil punches out Nazis to save European Jewry. Soon his exploits share newsstands with those of Superman and Batman, actual comic-book superheroes also invented by young Jewish artists and writers in the late 1930s. (You learn plenty here about the history, production and marketing of comic books, by the way.)
The adventures of Joe and Sam rush along on several tracks, greased with swift changes of locale and agile role-switching by the large, consistently strong cast.
We see just enough of Joe’s Houdini-style escape from Europe, and fond contact with his Czech family, to understand his melancholy and guilt as he prospers in America while loved ones suffer abroad.
Sam’s dawning awareness of his own homosexuality, in a time of virulent homophobia, is sensitively imparted, as is Joe’s passionate but rudely interrupted romance with fellow artist Rosa Saks (Opal Peachey).
Relationships are central here. But the atmospherics supplied by Kent Cubbage’s multihued lighting; Matt Starritt’s period-savvy sound design; Michael Owcharuk’s jazz and klezmer-influenced original music; and Pete Rush’s costumes add historical pungency and social context. Christopher Mumaw’s set design is also helpful, and clever in its use of comiclike frames. (One nit to pick: Some of the frequent between-scenes furniture schlepping gets distracting.)
The Book-It-style ingenuity of Platt’s staging peaks in a remarkably effective sequence at a polar naval base, where a frustrated Kavalier is stationed after the U.S. finally enters World War II. A deadly accident, a plane crash and a suspenseful faceoff with a German soldier are telescoped into the play with such swiftness and simplicity, the pace and cogency never slacken — though you may pull away from all this incident for a moment, just to admire the stagecraft.
The ensemble has the breezy flexibility of a crew of ’40s MGM studio players, with pop-out turns by Bill Johns as Sam’s long-gone circus strongman dad, Peachey as the sexy and intelligent Rosa, Michael Patten as a cynical editor, Arum as a paternal but crafty publisher, and Robert Hinds as Sam’s warm-hearted lover.
Goldstein begins on a shrill note, but moreover he’s endearing, comically sharp, believably Brooklyn. His portrayal deepens as Sammy confronts and evades his sexuality and endures harassment at a gay-baiting congressional hearing. (The Senate really did hold hearings in the 1950s on the alleged effects of comic books on juvenile delinquency.)
Most impressive is Boyd’s sublimely nuanced and poignant portrayal of Joe.
Lanky and pale, with a thatch of fair hair and wide, sad eyes, this shy and haunted refugee is ever the escape artist, never at home or at peace, except in fleeting moments of belonging. Boyd, a member of New York’s lauded Elevator Repair Service experimental troupe, really is the Kavalier you imagine while reading Chabon’s book.
He also pulls off an assortment of Joe’s nifty sleight-of-hand tricks and illusions — with a little help from the show’s magician adviser, Steffan Soule.
Misha Berson: email@example.com