Doses of Kryptonite

May 4 and 5 at the Quincy House Arts Festival

IN 1966, when mortal men tried to repackage Superman and sell it as camp, no one bought it. It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman flopped that year on Broadway, and it may have been because this poor hero had been too packaged already. But maybe the mentality just wasn't quite distant enough yet: the original Superman was a passion play of technological trash for people who had their fantasies in black-and-white. The perspective is probably more appropriate now. The corruption of the seventies needs to convince itself that it's at least delicious, and the sterile, abstract morality of the supervalues -- for all their McCarthyesque overtones -- provide smugly laughable kitsch. The camp formula is simple: take this gleaming man of steel and turn him into a shambling buffoon.

David Newman and Robert Benton did this in the original script, and all the trimmings were fine -- good jokes, nice lyrics, lively and interesting score. But they intended Superman to be inept and endearing, so they wrote it in. What this Quincy House production does, no less endearingly, is extend the clumsiness to the whole presentation. Needless as this amateur touch is, it doesn't really detract from an evening that had little more than laugh potential anyway. Harvard audiences seem sympathetic to plays that have some rollicking enthusiasm, and no one minded much that the technical, orchestral, and choreographic aspects of this production were bad, bad, bad on opening night.

SUPERMAN, then, is the only character who is supposed to be a klutz, and he doesn't shine as much as he could with so much competition from the rest of the crew. But Raphael Cohen, in his dual role as the Man and particularly as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, is still a strong actor. Obviously, the two poses require completely opposite attitudes. Superman is the focal point of everybody's existence: Lois adores him, the populace sing his praises daily, while a jealous scientist and a columnist for The Daily Planet hate him and drive the plot with their attempts to ruin him. Cohen's super-stance is perfect: standing tall, legs apart, fists on hips, he is a monument to ox-like goodness. But his manner has a depth to it that is hard to hide, and he is better at playing Kent, the outcast whose gaudy blue costume sleeves stick out through his suit as he sips milk through a straw and handles the shipping news for the Planet. But as the play goes on, and Superman himself becomes a neurotic anachronism, Cohen handles both parts with equal ease.

Most of the other actors aren't up to the professional assurance that the heavily-emphasized song-and-dance numbers demand. With so little help from whoever is responsible for keeping the transitions quick and neat, and with their voices often drowned in loud, sloppy musical accompaniment, all but two performers are less than captivating. These exceptions save the evening, and prove that the entire project is not as overambitious as it appears. Max Mencken, the Planet's gossip columnist, and his secretary Sydney are a corrupt, tawdry couple who are infinitely more attractive than the wooden romancers Superman and Lois Lane. Sydney, played by Jackie Shapiro, seduces Clark Kent like a pro when she sings "You've Got Possibilities" and her mincing walk gives her a convincing and memorable style. Ross Halper's Max is even better: his "Women for the Man" is the finest number for the show.

Superman is certainly esoteric enough, for it is rarely revived at all. But you can't even parody a slick Broadway production unless you have its polish. Affable, down-home amateurism can't make Superman take off.