This is how Book-It makes sure the audience stays for all five hours.
  • This is how Book-It makes sure the audience stays for all five hours.

On September 19, 2000, Random House published a 636-page novel, titled The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which became a kind of Moby-Dick for the McSweeney's generation. (It also won its author, Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize.) The story begins in a modest New York apartment where a 17-year-old Jewish boy named Sam Klayman has to make room in his single bed for cousin Josef "Joe" Kavalier—a refugee from Nazi-era Czechoslovakia who escaped the city in a coffin meant to smuggle out the famous Golem of Prague (a mystical creature made from stone and clay by a rabbi to protect the ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks) and circled the globe before arriving, exhausted, ill, sad, and broke in his cousin's bedroom.

The boys quickly forge an adolescent friendship and a comic-book enterprise, land a contract, and enter into a fictionalized version of the Golden Age of Comics. From that point, the novel's tentacular themes sprawl in at least a dozen directions: Nazism and American anti-Semitism, superheroes, the art worlds (high and low) of New York City, Jewish mysticism, magic and vaudeville, identity and insecurity (Sam is gay and closeted and changes his name from Klayman to Clay), and so on. But the motifs established in the very first scene—persecution and escape, the tension between flesh (clay) and spirit (magic), the complicated and uneasy world of boyish familial love, and who shares beds with whom—course through the novel like an electric current until its final scene.

In a recent fit of ambition, Book-It Repertory Theatre decided to adapt this mammoth story for the stage. (The adapter, Jeff Schwager, says Chabon was a good sport about the project—the theater pitched the idea, Chabon said okay and was totally hands-off throughout the process.) The result is a five-hour saga with 18 actors that maintains the page-turning action of the original and energy that only occasionally flags (mostly in the third of its four acts).