Noah Mease’s play Omega Kids takes its name from a fictional comic book at the center of its story. In the comic, eight super-powered teens regroup in their hideaway following the traumatic loss of their leader. The weight of the past and apprehension for the future create a recriminatory atmosphere that threatens to turn violent until Kyle Kelley, the “Insomniac,” puts everyone to sleep. When Lucas Augur, “recently magical,” wakes up, he and Kyle take the first halting steps toward romance, acting on an attraction that until now has been merely implicit. The play itself is about a different pair of traumatized youths stumbling toward connection. What they’re looking for in each other, however, can’t be so easily classified.
In the Omega Kids play, the trauma is a three-week conference spent wrangling real-life teenagers, and the safe space is Michael’s (Fernando Gonzalez) unadorned apartment near Boston, where he and another counselor, also named Michael (Will Sarratt), have retreated. They may not have superpowers, but they’re also somewhat stuck between a difficult past and an anxious future. There is half-hearted talk of going out, but instead the Michaels pass the evening bonding over a mutual hatred of Bud Light Raz-Ber-Ita and an old issue of Omega Kids that the “Other Michael” (the one who lives in the apartment, so named at the conference for being newer) bought for 50 cents to look like a “cool, normal person who’s cool enough to casually care about comics.” Michael is the shy one. He read the comic online one lonely summer while working as a college tour guide, and gushes about it with that Pentecostal zeal verging on mania that characterizes so much fanboy discourse today. The Other Michael is the confident one. For him, Omega Kids was just a cool cartoon that provided a moment of reprieve from the group homes he was passed between as a kid.
Mease, a props designer whose work is currently represented on Broadway by Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, created the Omega Kids comic as well, which audience members are encouraged to read before and during the show, and take home afterward. The comic not only makes for a unique souvenir of the performance, but creates a sort of feedback loop with the play itself, reflecting and amplifying its themes. This allows the play to transcend the small square of carpet, furnished with only a lamp, that Brian Dudkiewicz has designed as a blank slate on which the boys can explore their connection.
Since at least the 1990s, when Mulder and Scully teased fans for seven seasons on The X-Files before finally kissing, “shipping” has been a key tenet of online fandom. This “will they or won’t they?” dynamic has played out across message boards and fan fiction since the Internet’s alpha, and Omega Kids achieves impressive dramatic tension by shipping the two Michaels. The intimate setting and lack of histrionics, under Jay Stull’s unfussy direction, creates a voyeuristic dynamic in which the audience pores over every glance, stutter, or scratch for a sign of development. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that things do not play out as you might expect. Gonzalez and Sarratt strike a nuanced balance with their performances, neither telegraphing their feelings nor hiding behind a forced inscrutability.
The boys’ relationship progresses through the fits and starts of Mease’s slangy, ultrarealistic dialogue (indeed, your enjoyment of the play may ultimately rest on your tolerance for the word “like”), which occasionally veers into the overripe. Immortal jellyfish, psychopomps, and Lichtenberg figures are interesting as comic-book tropes, less so as theatrical metaphors. One of the play’s most intriguing ideas, the boys’ great nostalgia for something neither of them experienced in its “pure” form, is dropped almost as soon as it arises. Though Omega Kids is interested in dissecting superhero-as-queer symbolism, the implications of this misplaced nostalgia on queer identity are left underexplored. Perhaps the comic book is there to encourage us to do that important mental work ourselves.
At any rate, it’s clear Mease has a lot on his mind, from the commodification of identity to the legacy of abuse to the way modern fandom can be used as both plowshare and sword. The direct line the play draws between fandom and queer identity is cliché at this point, but Mease energizes it with three-dimensional characters who are allowed to be more than just their sexuality. If this intimate two-hander sometimes buckles under all that heavy lifting, a late twist shows that even small things can achieve greatness. Although the theater tends to avoid comic book stories, sometimes it’s the best place to turn off the dark.
Noah Mease’s Omega Kids plays through March 25 at Access Theater (380 Broadway at White Street, 4th floor). Performances are Thursday through Sunday; schedule changes weekly. For tickets and information, visit accesstheater.com.