Raleigh Ensemble Players artistic director C. Glen Matthews’ 1998 edition of the astonishing Brad Fraser play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love was not merely the highlight of its theatrical year; it was also among the half-dozen or so best and most memorable productions I’ve ever seen of anything, by any group, anywhere and that list includes the original 1979 Sweeney Todd. For me, that pitch-black 1989 comedy of contemporary mores was everything an evening of theatre can be, and then some: fresh, fast, engrossing, audacious, trenchant, penetrating, incisive, brilliantly imagined, and perfectly observed by one of the finest ensemble casts imaginable. It made you happy to be alive in a time when such miracles are possible.

I don’t think I’m alone in believing Unidentified Human Remains to be something of a one-off. Fraser himself says it “may well be the kind of play that comes along once in a writer’s lifetime.” That once is, of course, more than most playwrights ever achieve. All of which is to say that Fraser’s unofficial sequel, Poor Super Man: A Play with Captions (April 28-May 8 at Artspace and co-directed by Matthews and Heather Willcox) reaps what can only be diminishing returns on its predecessor’s nonpareil.

For one thing David, the central character in both plays, is a thorny presence, difficult to love. This in itself is not necessarily a debit for any play. But in Unidentified Human Remains, David was one among several, equally well-defined figures. Yes, it was still primarily “his” play, but his emotional usury did not take center stage as it does in Poor Super Man. Remains was, in large part, about David’s frustration with his own inability to love. But since the climax of that play found him cracking open at last, it seems an exercise in redundancy to repeat this dilemma in a second work. Yet that is precisely what Fraser does in Poor Super Man.

In this later work, David in Remains a jaded former actor now waiting tables is a successful artist hoping to connect to something tangible by returning to his former means of employment. But there was no indication in Fraser’s previous outing that David had any background, or even interest in, art. Similarly, David’s friend and roommate Candy is displaced here, curiously, by his “best friend” of 20 years, Kryla. And whereas David became more open and vulnerable by the end of Remains, he’s spun around at least 180 degrees in this play, and is now altogether ruthless by comparison. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but the alterations Fraser has made to David here are, if only in terms of character continuity, exceedingly odd.

That’s not to say that Poor Super Man is without interest, or somehow devoid of the bold stylistic palette of Remains. I don’t think Fraser is capable of dullness; his ear is as highly attuned here to nuanced human intercourse as ever. But David’s thoughtless, unremorseful qualities (not to mention his personal addictions, barely acknowledged), coupled as they are with Matthews’ own rather charmless performance, make the play considerably less exhilarating than its progenitor. In addition, the play feels much too long. Human Remains was also lengthy, but was so vivid and compelling you scarcely noticed.

What’s needed is someone like Taylor Ruckel, who performed the role of David at REP in 1998 with such humor and attractiveness that the character’s less-savory aspects did not overwhelm. I understand that Matthews tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist Ruckel for this production, and was forced to step into the role himself. Compromise is always a factor in the theater, and I’m empathetic. But for all his brilliance as a director and I think he has few peers in this vicinity Matthews is a limited actor. He tends to use the same gestures and quirks and to affect the same persona whenever he’s on stage, and he makes David icier and more snidely sarcastic than I suspect Fraser intended.

By contrast, Zach Thomas is entirely there as Matt, the young restaurateur dismayed to find himself inexplicably drawn to David. Thomas unfailingly conveys Matt’s basic decency, his growing confusion, increasing ambivalence, and guilt-wracked unhappiness. Betsy Henderson is vivid as always in the underdeveloped role of Matt’s wife Violet, but she’s a character whose basic emotion rage quickly grows tiresome. As David’s frustrated pal Kryla, Carole Marcotte is doing the best work of her life as an actress. Her Kryla is companionable, dry, funny, hurt, angry, and, finally, more empathic and responsible than she means to be.

The evening’s highest honors, and the most remarkable aspect of this production, however, is young Kareem Nemley as the courageous Shannon, David’s dying roommate whose long-cherished dream of sexual readjustment is thwarted by her own AIDS-ravaged body. Nemley gives an achingly realized performance with every detail absolutely in place. He captures Shannon’s fatalism, anguish, kindness, exhaustion, bone-tiredness even her dying shudders and pain-ravaged breathing with such seemingly effortless precision that he moves beyond acting and into something rather more like being, or becoming. Nemley’s performance is one of shattering bravery not because of the character’s sexual dimensions but because he is so thoroughly invested in, and so completely open to, her rich and varied gradations.

Shannon Clark’s set, anchored by a large triangle that might be a martini glass or the “V” on Superman’s chest, provides a splendidly open playing area. His costumes and lighting designs are similarly vivid, as is the marvelous video projection by Bridget Harron. Fraser’s “captions” are a deliciously theatrical accompaniment to the action of the play, revealing the true nature of his characters’ thoughts and feelings that lie beneath their often-evasive dialogue.

Finally, a personal observation: I take strong exception to Matthews’s assertion that Poor Super Man is not “a gay play.” What with a gay artist, a pre-op transsexual dying of complications from AIDS, and a troubled latent bisexual as three of its five characters, extended and full male nudity, vivid simulations of gay sex, and the women in the play taking a decided back seat, I don’t know how much “gayer” a play could get. I suspect that Matthews, for all of his courage as a director, is hedging his bets here.

It’s not that this play or any play written by a gay man and concerned with issues related to homoerotic sexuality cannot, as Matthews contends of this one, be universal in story and theme. Homosexual people are not aliens somehow utterly separate from their heterosexual counterparts; their concerns are essentially the same, with obvious variation. All art that affects a human and humane response gets to the general through the specific. Anyone who eschews a play (or movie, or painting, or ballet) because the specificity of its racial or sexual components is different from his or her own experience deserves a steady diet of pap.

Warning: Poor Super Man contains material of a graphic and explicit nature. No one under 17 will be admitted without a parent or guardian.

Second Opinion: April 24th News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/1166979p-7270435c.html.

Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Poor Super Man Thursday-Saturday, April 29-May 1, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 2, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, May 5 and 6, at 8 p.m.; Friday, May 7, at 10:30 p.m.; and Saturday, May 8, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina $15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel). Group rates are available. 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/SUPERMANreservation.htm. Note 1: The April 30th performance will be audio described and sign language interpreted, with Large-Print and Braille programs on hand and a Tactile Tour beginning at 7 p.m. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/2004/shows/superman2004two.htm. Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia: http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Brad%20Fraser [inactive 6/04].