Sunday, November 23, 2014

116. Review of PUNK ROCK (November 20, 2014)ann

The MCC Theater’s production of PUNK ROCK, British playwright Simon Stephens’s 2009 British drama about a group of boisterous students in an English public (i.e., private) school, delivers such a rock ‘em sock ‘em theatrical blow that it’s not till you’re riding home on the subway or rerunning it in your head as you fall asleep that some of its dramatic drawbacks begin to bleed. Bleeding is an operative word here, given the outcome of this often funny, but mainly tragic look at the uncomfortably entwined lives of these anxious kids as they revise (i.e., review) for their A level mock exams (something like PSATs) in a school located in Stockport, England, near Manchester, where Mr. Stephens (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME) actually spent some time as a teacher.

PUNK ROCK is the second play inspired by the Columbine shootings I’ve seen in a week; it makes the other, THE ERLKINGS, look, in theatrical terms, like a BB gun next to an AK47. All the action takes place on Mark Wendland’s brilliantly photorealistic envisioning of a mostly disused school library, peeling ceiling paint and all, which makes the Lucille Lortel stage look twice as big as you might have thought it was.

Will Pullen gives Noah Robbins a piece of his mind in Simon Stephens' Punk Rock, a production of MCC Theater directed by Trip Cullman at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
From left: Pico Alexander, Will Pullen, Noah Robbins, Lilly Englert. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mr. Stephens’s four boys and three girls offer such a dynamically active picture of rampaging hormones, sexual confusion, romantic awkwardness, teenage depression, and damnable bullying that you’ll wonder how you ever got through those tormented years (if, indeed, these kids even remotely reflect your experiences) in one piece (assuming you did). Yes, these lads and lasses, each representing some teenage stereotype—already represented in an endless series of films and TV shows, not to mention plays (a recent, representative example being HISTORY BOYS)—are not particularly unique, but the playwright manages to invest them with piercing vividness, not a heartbeat of which the exceptional young cast misses. Although seemingly realistic, these characters are, in fact, hyper-realistic, their insistently physical, super-articulate, often profanity-smeared way of expressing themselves taking them to another level only viable on the stage. Their combined charisma, vitality, and emotionalism compresses this mélange of smart, privileged, middle-class prep uniform-wearing teens into an explosively potent stick of stageworthy TNT.

The action, played out during a consistently gripping intermissionless hour and 45-minutes, covers seven scenes, beginning in early October, climaxing in an act of violence in November, and concluding around Christmas with the culpable student in a medium security hospital. On view are William Carlisle (Douglas Smith), a motor-mouthed, savvy, but mendacious and jumpily neurotic beanpole who wants to go to Cambridge; Lilly Cahill (Colbie Minifie), the masochistic new girl, a college professor’s daughter, just arrived from Cambridge, and quickly involved—to William’s distress—in a relationship with the handsome lacrosse player, Nicholas Chatman (Pico Alexander), one of the quieter students; Tracy Gleason (Annie Funke), a goodhearted, overweight girl who becomes an unfortunate target of abuse by the restlessly driven bully, Bennett Francis (Will Pullen); Chadwick Meade (Noah Robbins) nerdy but brilliant, who strikes back at the threatening Bennett with a devastating diatribe about the ultimate downfall of the world; and Cissy Franklin (Lilly Englert), Bennett’s hottie girlfriend, a straight A student whose emotional neediness allows her to tolerate his sadism. There’s also a brief role for a character’s younger sister, Lucy (Sophie Shapiro).  

I’d rather praise the entire excellent ensemble than each member of it. Only one actor, Lilly Englert, is actually British, but the accents almost always sound authentic, even to the point of occasional incomprehensibility as the words come tumbling out. As is so often the case, all the actors playing high school students are way too old (22 to 29), but they all pass convincingly for adolescents when on stage.

To underline the nervous tension during the scene breaks, director Trip Cullman (abetted by sound designer Darron L. West) turns the music volume (Big Black, Sonic Youth, the Stooges, etc.) up to max and the lights (a superb job by Japhy Weideman) to an eerie min, as the cast enters in phantasmagoric masks moving bizarrely to the wild rhythms before rapidly vanishing as the music suddenly ends and the lights bounce instantly on again, the contrast creating an effect of deafening silence. The effect suggests a nightmare vision of the inner demons torturing each student. Mr. Cullman’s staging throughout is inventive and excitingly paced, with the actors’ bullet-train speech and high energy interchanges almost giving the impression they’re on speed. The climactic scene is done with such frightening realism you may consider running for the nearest exit.

Living in a world where every week seems to offer news of school violence, we yearn for answers to what can be done to stop the carnage. THE ERLKINGS offers the desperate suggestion that “reaching out” will help but PUNK ROCK doesn’t even go that far. Mr. Stephens includes an unnecessary coda involving a psychiatrist (David Greenspan), but stops short of attempting to offer an explanation for the unexplainable. As we continually learn, the modern world is such that there’s no way these events can be prevented.

If this were an American play, one could protest the country’s idiotic lack of gun control, but the play takes place in England, where guns are banned (although gun crimes are on the rise). Madness is madness, wherever it happens. As the perpetrator admits: “I did it because I could.” PUNK ROCK may not be great drama, but it’s sure as hell terrific theatre. It won't enlighten you about school violence, with or without guns, but it may very well scare the bejesus out of you.   

Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through December 14