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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By "hits," I do not mean songs. Its weird title notwithstanding, Punk Rock contains no music (aside from the aforementioned inter-scene sounds) and has an entirely different subject on its mind.
The play's L.A. premiere, directed by Lisa James at the Odyssey Theatre, comes across more like a battering than a dramatic narrative. By turns vicious and terrifying and bleaker than an apocalypse, the production contains some superb acting by its seven–person cast. The merits of this production are considerable, but you'll need to make it through an hour and 45 minutes of undistilled angst to get to them. Consider yourself warned.
As comforting as it would be to label the British prep school in Stockport where Punk Rock is set as unrecognizable, these kids feel disturbingly real and universal. Stephens tracks four boys and three girls who gather regularly in the upper school library to study, snog, confess, bond and escape, with each one more damaged or dangerous than the next. If asked, they would all probably declare themselves friends. But mates look out for each other. The only way these not-all-right kids would have each other's backs would be to determine the best place to insert the knife.
Given how messed up these seniors all are, their behavior may only be partially their own fault. When Chadwick Meade (played by Kenney Selvey), the brainy and persecuted introvert, unleashes a monologue about how calculably awful the world is, we already have a sense of what Chadwick has experienced to reach this conclusion. And things are only going to get worse.
There's Nicholas (Nicholas Marini), a comely jock who thinks he might have a chance at bedding a teacher. Missy (Miranda Wynne) is desperate to get out of Stockport and she'll be OK as long as she aces all her exit exams and never pulls down anything less than an A grade. Her boyfriend Bennett (Jacob Gibson), the group's leader, abusively persecutes absolutely everyone including Chadwick and Cissy's best friend Tanya (Story Slaughter), a plain jane with simple dreams. Chadwick, a scholarship student, is probably on the autism spectrum, which in no way spares him from torment.
New girl Lily (Raven Scott) is on her fourth school in as many cities. She's hip and friendly, and the library clique accepts her almost immediately. The person most taken with her is William (Zachary Grant) who &emdash; at least socially speaking &emdash; has probably burned his way through everyone else in the school. A motor mouth with bits of hair that stick up in bird-like tufts, William claims to know all the school's inner workings. He's a deep thinker who boasts that he works undercover observing Muslim students. When he says "Can I confess something," you're never sure what bit of wisdom or indignity will fall from his lips. Asking Lily out is clearly a leap for William, and she kindly but firmly says no. "This is a bit of a disappointment," William says.
Punk Rock is heading somewhere and it is not a happy place. Using outdated furniture and shelves stocked with old obsolete books and school equipment (encyclopedias and typewriters), set designer John Iacovelli has fashioned a meeting space that feels more like a storage closet than a de facto clubhouse for the privileged. Although they must have non school-related lives (none of them happy), it becomes difficult to envision our seven outside this stuffy room.
Across the play's 105 queasy minutes, director James ratchets up the discomfort level, making many of the scenes hugely unsettling. A line like "don't come to class tomorrow" carries a spoiler-like prophecy of what's to come. And Punk Rock's catharsis is harrowing.
It's debatable what Stephens wants us to make of these mean and messed-up kids. They are worthy of pity certainly, if not empathy. Watching them is a rough ride, and the actors do their best to try to earn some kind of audience connection. Gibson's Bennett is a character who is so loathsome (made all the worse by the fact that the actor is beautiful) that you almost want to see the guy brought low. When she is witnessing her boyfriend's cruelty, Wynne's Cissy is caught somewhere between adoration, desperation and helplessness. Here's a girl who has been too often ignored.
As Lily, Scott is as close a thing as the play has to a moral center. In this character, we see someone who at least possesses something resembling a conscience, but Lily has battle wounds of her own, and William's willingness to trade an MP3 full of mixtapes in exchange for Lily agreeing to stop burning herself is strangely gallant.
Playing easily the two least "normal" boys in the school, Grant and Selvey are both superb. Selvey embraces Chadwick's self-focused quirks; the kid knows exactly who he is and can't easily be broken. In Grant's antsy, performance, we are watching a broken soul so deeply in need of a meaningful human connection that pitiable seems too mild a term. Budding psychologists could take something away from careful study of both performances.
The same can be said of the entire play. Stephens will be back in L.A. later this year when the national tour of his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night arrives at the Ahmanson. Curious Incident is a different animal, certainly, but after the angst of Punk Rock, let's hope the next one has some trace of human kindness.
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Punk Rock by Simon Stephens
Directed by Lisa James
Cast: Mark Daneri, Jacob Gibson, Zachary Grant, Nicholas Marini, Raven Scott, Kenney Selvey, Story Slaughter, Miranda Wynne
Scenic Designer: John Iacovelli
Costume Designer: Halei Parker
Lighting Designer: Brian Gale
Sound Designer: Christopher Moscatiello
Fight Choreographer: Matthew Glave
Assistant Director: Gregory Kucukarslan
Stage Manager: Emily Lehrer
Plays through May 14, 2017 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. www.OdysseyTheatre.com
Running time: One hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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