On September 19, 2000, Random House published a 636-page novel, titled The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which became a kind of Moby-Dick for the McSweeney's generation. (It also won its author, Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize.) The story begins in a modest New York apartment where a 17-year-old Jewish boy named Sam Klayman has to make room in his single bed for cousin Josef "Joe" Kavalier—a refugee from Nazi-era Czechoslovakia who escaped the city in a coffin meant to smuggle out the famous Golem of Prague (a mystical creature made from stone and clay by a rabbi to protect the ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks) and circled the globe before arriving, exhausted, ill, sad, and broke in his cousin's bedroom.
The boys quickly forge an adolescent friendship and a comic-book enterprise, land a contract, and enter into a fictionalized version of the Golden Age of Comics. From that point, the novel's tentacular themes sprawl in at least a dozen directions: Nazism and American anti-Semitism, superheroes, the art worlds (high and low) of New York City, Jewish mysticism, magic and vaudeville, identity and insecurity (Sam is gay and closeted and changes his name from Klayman to Clay), and so on. But the motifs established in the very first scene—persecution and escape, the tension between flesh (clay) and spirit (magic), the complicated and uneasy world of boyish familial love, and who shares beds with whom—course through the novel like an electric current until its final scene.
In a recent fit of ambition, Book-It Repertory Theatre decided to adapt this mammoth story for the stage. (The adapter, Jeff Schwager, says Chabon was a good sport about the project—the theater pitched the idea, Chabon said okay and was totally hands-off throughout the process.) The result is a five-hour saga with 18 actors that maintains the page-turning action of the original and energy that only occasionally flags (mostly in the third of its four acts).
Actors Frank Boyd (Joe Kavalier) and David Goldstein (Sammy Clay) give rock-solid performances that mature in age and personality as the story rolls along. They spend the first scene sniffing each other out with all the awkward tenderness of adolescent boys getting to know each other. Boyd's Kavalier is tall, sleepy-eyed, and graceful (he learned magic and escape acts as a boy in Prague), while Goldstein's Clay is jittery, brainy, and sometimes shrill. (Boyd is a veteran of durational literary adaptation: He's a member of Elevator Repair Service, which performed a six-hour version of The Great Gatsby at On the Boards in 2007.)
Together they dream up a superhero named the Escapist and pour their hopes and insecurities into the "lithe, acrobatic man in a dark blue costume with a skeleton-key emblem on the chest" who doesn't just fight evil, Clay says, but "frees the world of it. He frees people, see?" The Escapist is an American golem in his own right: Their first cover features him socking Hitler in the jaw. But this is before the United States has declared war on Germany, and their boss Sheldon Anapol (marvelously played by Richard Arum as both gruff and weaselly, a businessman who can be charmingly unctuous or abrasive as the situation demands) has his reservations about their character being a little too Judeocentric. Nevertheless, the Escapist is a hit, and "the boys" are soon rolling in wealth and pulp-publishing glory.
Director Myra Platt conjures up a rollicking New York for the cousins to barrel through, from parties to bachelor pads to gorgeously choreographed street scenes in which the ensemble bustles around the stage to create a sense of big-city chaos, and suddenly becomes slow and quiet when Platt wants to draw our attention to an important moment of dialogue, then bursts back into life. Designer Christopher Mumaw has painted cityscapes in tall panels to keep the ambience suspended between real-life New York and a comic-book version of Metropolis. Platt has coaxed several highly evocative performances out of her cast: Robert Hinds as Tracy Bacon (a big, blond, corn-fed American hunk who helps Clay explore his sexuality), Michael Patten as George Deasey (a former foreign correspondent and chief editor of Empire Comics who hides a strong streak of human decency beneath his worldly sneer), and Opal Peachey as Rosa Saks (an artist who becomes Kavalier's lover and then Clay's wife).
Perhaps fittingly—or ironically fittingly—for a play about boys and their comic books, Kavalier & Clay has a kind of two-dimensionality. It's a wild story that maintains a cliff-hanging tension, but it doesn't contain any deeply transcendent moments. As a golem, it's a little more clay than spirit. But its unusual size and strength allow it to accomplish some feats that are beyond normal-proportioned plays, and its prevailing mood is also golem-like—that even in the midst of trouble, there is hope.