There are two moments of marvelous “meta” in Lenny Schwartz’ fascinating, highly entertaining play Bill Finger: Rise of the Bat which got hearty laughs from the audience. Picture it: New York City, the 1930’s. Writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane are discussing their new comic book creation: A tortured soul turned caped crusader named… “BATMAN”. Kane declares, “Let’s hope that the character lasts!” Later on in 1940, when discussing the new supervillain who would become Batman’s most notorious enemy (Yes, if you haven’t figured it out, it’s “Joker”, which we learn was modeled after Conrad Veidt’s eternally unsettling character in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs…), Kane declares again: “I’m starting to think the Joker will be around for more than one strip!” Pop culture history would ultimately have its say, well into 2022 and likely for another 83 or more years.
It is safe to say that American and international audiences will always be fascinated by all things Batman, starting with the superhero’s well-known yet tragic backstory. The backstory, after all, is always a pivotal part of any superhero’s persona. Bill Finger, the historically lesser known of Batman’s artistic fathers, is also a hero– an unsung hero, indeed– and he has a backstory colored by tragedy as well. That story is brought to life in Schwartz’ fast moving, poignant drama Rise of the Bat, which is enjoying a three-show run in New York City. As comic book aficionados may already know, it was a S-L-O-W (75 years, in fact) and not very smooth pathway before Finger received the posthumous recognition he deserved as co-creator of Batman– as well as countless other iconic characters and touchstones of the Dark Knight’s universe. As the audience ultimately learns, Bill’s granddaughter Athena Finger (who was in attendance for the performance I watched) was hugely instrumental in the fight for the retroactive credit and the concurrent fame which the writer should have had all along.
The attendees of Rise of the Bat are first introduced to Bill Finger (Geoff Monti) in 1936, where the young aspiring writer is selling ladies’ shoes. Finger later re-connects with an ambitious fellow high school alumnus from the Bronx, a young aspiring artist named Bill Kane (Derek Laurendeau). Kane has some vague ideas about a hero who can challenge Superman for dominance of the comic book world. It would be Finger, however, who would not only write the character’s stories, but would also suggest aspects of Batman’s now-signature look: the black and gray body armor, the famous cowl, and the scalloped cape among them. (Let’s just say that Kane’s original idea for Batman was… well, quite “different”. As a Zoology minor, I can say without doubt that no scarlet-colored bats exist in the wild…) The lives of the lonely Finger and the skirt-chasing Kane are changed forever when, seemingly before you can say “To the Batcave!”, their new creation becomes a huge success.
From the start, the script drops subtle hints as to the many factors which will ultimately come into play later on in the life stories of both Finger and Kane: the antisemitism faced in America during that time period, Finger’s percolating alcoholism, and Kane’s manipulative personality among them. Surely enough, those factors come out in a big way as the dynamic changes in the two men’s wary “friendship”. Kane seeks full ownership of Batman’s character, while Finger’s seemingly masochistic nature keeps him from standing up for himself. Along the way, Finger is followed by an omnipresent, nameless character (played with haunting charisma by Aaron Andrade) who appears to know more about Bill than he knows– or is willing to know– about himself. The play alludes that this may be everyone’s greatest superpower of all: the ability to face the hard inner truths about our own lives, as scary as they may be. Who exactly is this mysterious stranger? And does this have anything to do with… BATMAN?
Playwright/director Lenny Schwartz deserves loud applause for bringing Finger’s bittersweet saga to the stage. The story (by Athena Finger, Alethia Bess Mariotta, and Schwartz himself), peppered with the many priceless pieces of Batman trivia, is fascinating enough to capture and keep the audience’s interest in itself. However, it is the script, the direction, and the acting that really makes that story come alive in 1960’s-style, blindingly bright Technicolor. The direction is smooth, the pace is brisk, and there is plenty of humor throughout to temper the pathos of the titular main character. There are some subtle yet irresistible Bat-references via the script, the costumes, and some of the secondary characters which Dark Knight fans will undoubtedly appreciate: the theatrical equivalent of “easter eggs” in movies. The acting is very good, with Geoff Monti and Derek Laurendeau expertly nailing the characters of Finger and Kane respectively. As Jerry Robinson, another possibly underappreciated character in the Batman-verse, Bailey Duarte is perfect as the talented
21 20 18-year-old artist. The hardworking supporting cast, several of whom play multiple roles, are all just fine as well.
As we learn in Schwartz’ play, the man born Milton Finger in 1914 never got the full credit that he deserved for his artistry while he was alive. His future legacy, however, ultimately got (to borrow the name of a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series), “The Last Laugh”.
Bill Finger: Rise of the Bat continues at The Chain Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, Fourth Floor, New York City on October 4th and 5th at 8PM. The play is presented by Daydream Theatre Company, RISE Playhouse, and Producer Aaron Andrade. Tickets are available for $15 online and $20 at the door and may be purchased here. Poster by Arlen Schumer. Photo of cast with Athena Finger by Duncan Pflaster.