At the opening of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s semi-autobiographical comedy Based on a Totally True Story, comic-book writer and playwright Ethan Keene receives an inexorable order from the higher-ups at DC Comics. In the upcoming issue of The Flash, they demand, Ethan must script a scene in which Wally West reveals his incomparably speedy secret identity to his girlfriend. “But the Flash is the fastest man alive,” protests Ethan. “It’s not in his nature to slow down, take stock of his life, open himself up.” Ethan, it seems, identifies rather unhealthily with the superhero (he owns Flash T-shirts, lunch boxes, patterned sheets). If the Flash is forced to decelerate and decompartmentalize, Ethan fears he might do the same. Ethan doesn’t have a secret identity, but facing up to his overt one is trouble enough.
When not writing for the stage, Aguirre- Sacasa pens The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man for Marvel. As he must know from his day job, a hero’s existential crisis and revelation aren’t enough to carry an issue of a comic—it’s got to be mixed up with plenty of Biff! Bam! and especially Pow! The play could use lots of the same. Ethan’s angsty dilemma, antically played by cutie-pie Carson Elrod, proves too slight to sustain a two-hour show. From the play’s first moments, we know that Ethan’s script will somehow reach the screen and that his relationship with boyfriend Michael won’t survive his bout with almost fame. The story’s told retrospectively and delivers appealing moments and gorgeous lines, but not much in the way of suspense or story arc.
That’s a strange irony, as nearly all of Aguirre-Sacasa’s previous plays, mostly unproduced in New York, don’t stint on plot in the least. For example, The Muckle Man, which in a self-referential nod is the script Ethan’s struggling to shill to Hollywood, concerns a hunky young man who emerges from the sea and commits a swath of seductions and murders in order to reclaim the life of a brain-damaged boy who should have drowned some years ago. Now, there’s a narrative! And yet it isn’t the lyrical, superbly weird Muckle Man that producers have picked for Aguirre-Sacasa’s Off-Broadway debut but this genial, quite ordinary comedy.
Michael Bush’s rather schematic direction—he and his designers have chosen signature colors to represent the different characters—doesn’t help matters, but much of the acting’s quite good, particularly Pedro Pascal as Michael and Kristine Nielsen as a borderline-Tourettic Juicy Couture–clad producer. And far be it from us to dislike any work in which the brilliant, attractive, sensible, occasionally bespectacled love interest is, as Ethan explains, “a staff writer for the Voice.” “A cultural critic for the Voice,” Michael gently corrects him. Represent!