The Mark of Kane
Playwright: Mark Pracht
At: City Lit Theatre
Tickets: www.citylit.org; $34
Runs through: Dec. 4
This robust new play reveals the writers and artists who launched an enduring icon of American popular culture, Batman. It's peopled with colorful freelance artists and writers scrambling for a living in the slightly-shady '30s early comic book industry.
The title character, Bob Kane (1915-1998), claimed for decades that he was the sole creator of Batman, the franchise which made him rich and famous. In fact, he wasn't, although by contract he received sole credit. He actually drew relatively little of Batman and wrote none of it, relying instead on a team of "ghosts," chief among them writer Milton "Bill" Finger (1914-1974), the real genius behind the character. Indeed, Finger is the protagonist of "The Mark of Kane," which centers on his fraught relationship with Kane.
The play leaps to life in Act I when Kane and Finger work up the first Batman story, published in 1939, and their creative juices flow. Kane soon cuts his exclusive credit deal with a thug publisher, and tells Finger, "I'm going to make sure you're taken care of, but you work for me." However, we never see him in the studio guiding his ghosts, nor do we know if he took care of his people or not. Kane and Finger both left the franchise at times and returned to it, and the alcoholic Finger often missed deadlines, but The Mark of Kane doesn't explore this material.
It's presented like a comic book, which is good and bad. Its 18 relatively-brief scenes are like comic book panels which sketch emotions, actions and characters in unsubtle bold, bald strokes. From the moment we meet Kane and Finger, we know that Kane (Josh Zagoren) is a sometimes-charming, self-aggrandizing four-flusher and that the less-assured, unaggressive Finger (Todd Wojcik) will be his foil. A comic book look is achieved through projected photo-murals as backgrounds for each scene, created by designer G. "Max" Maxin IV.
The downside is that Kane and Finger deserve more depth and nuance, which "The Mark of Kane" misses. Spanning 1938-2006 (years after Kane and Finger died), it introduces many undeveloped secondary figures who appear only once or twice, with 13 playing 24 characters.
This isn't tidy or efficient playwriting, so Pracht needs to condense and trim. For example, The Mark of Kane has four characters looking back from 2006 to narrate the story. It briefly introduces Kane's and Finger's parentswhom we never see againto contrast the emotional environments they provided Bob and Bill. There are better ways to do these things.
The Mark of Kane kicks off an ambitious three-year trilogy at City Lit. Part two concerns Frederic Wertham's 1954 muckraking book, "Seduction of the Innocent," which nearly killed comic books, and part three will chronicle the stupendous rise of Marvel Comics. The Mark of Kane has received considerable media attention and is drawing enthusiastic audiences. One hopes that Pracht and McCabe won't be content with popular success, but will hunker in the Batcave to improve the play.
Jonathan Abarbanel is a member and past-Chairperson of the American Theatre Critics Association.