The title of writer/director Mark Pracht’s second installment to his Four-Color Trilogy, a series about the comic books publishing industry, could easily be mistaken for one of the real-world pre-Code, sultry cheesecake books Pracht’s play centers on. But it’s actually a reference to the markedly un-horny Seduction of the Innocent, German American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s 1954 pop science screed that bemoans the moral decay that illustrative storytelling supposedly unleashes upon impressionable child minds.
The Innocence of Seduction
Through 10/8: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 9/25 and 10/2 7:30 PM; City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-293-3682, citylit.org, $34 (seniors $29, students/military $12)
Following a triptych of historic comic book provocateurs and pioneers (Sean Harklerode as EC Comics crime and horror publisher Will Gaines; Brian Bradford as the closeted, Black artist Matt Baker; and Megan Clarke as comics glass ceiling-breaker Janice Valleau), City Lit’s world premiere juxtaposes excerpts from Wertham’s panic-stoking manifesto (personified by Frank Nall) against the creatives trying to satisfy their audiences and their own visions in an increasingly finicky market.
At the treatment level, Pracht’s story does what good documentary theater does best: contextualizes major themes of an era—midcentury American weaponization of censorship, in this case—and frames them and their impacts at a personal, human level.
In execution, the saga of future MAD magazine publisher Gaines comes through the strongest, in part due to Harklerode’s genuinely funny performance as a bumbling PR nightmare. Wedged between the Gaines plotline’s madcap style and green-lit scenes of Reefer Madness-esque spooky narration, though, Valleau and Baker’s threads come across as melodramatic and underserved. Even though it clocks in under two hours, Innocence ends up feeling like a long introduction to admittedly fascinating characters that never really gets into what makes them tick.