Reviewed by Maureen Lee Lenker
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Through May 14th
If you’re a patron of the arts, it’s likely you’ve absorbed your fair share of teenage angst in storytelling. Since the rise of youth culture in the mid-twentieth century, it’s become an inexhaustible well of inspiration, with results that vary from hackneyed to transcendent. Sadly, Punk Rock, directed by Lisa James at the Odyssey Theatre, edges to the more tired and trite end of the spectrum. Not to trivialize a scourge that is clearly still an epidemiological problem in America, but how many more stories can we bear to hear about angry young men and the violent outpourings of their rage?
It’s clear we’re in trouble from the moment you peruse the note from the playwright Simon Stephens in the program. His screed about the meaning of “Punk Rock” as a movement (and mystifying pot shots at Tom Stoppard) is unbearably self-indulgent and sneering (frankly, rather like the movement itself at times). He treats all those who don’t “get it” with disdain, and mentions angry young men who turn to mass murder with a mix of derision and voyeurism.
All of what is encapsulated in his three-hundred odd word program note is what we also find onstage (and though it’s given an uninterrupted hour and forty-five minutes to breathe its tale, it doesn’t ever delve much deeper than the program paragraph). The play tells the story of a group of disaffected teenagers at a private school in Northern England who drink, have sex, swear, and bully their way through their final year of high school. They are all miserable to varying degrees — some because of the pressure to do well in school, others because they feel they are overweight or unattractive, and many simply because they feel they don’t fit in. It’s a familiar story, but one that does little to draw us in because it relies on generalities and shallow assessments of teen angst. Both William (Zachary Grant) and Bennett (Jacob B. Gibson) are angry young men, but just why they’re so angry we’ll never know. Stephens provides us with little backstory so their alienation rarely extends beyond the moments we see them onstage.
In the case of William Carlisle, we get an ever-fluctuating narrative (a bit akin to Heath Ledger’s Joker) that neither confirms nor denies any of the roots of his disaffection. William is mentally unstable (Grant’s acting choices suggest he may even be schizophrenic), but what has driven him to the edge is never made clear. Perhaps, in the era when punk rock music took the world by storm, merely conveying anger and alienation was enough. Not anymore. If we’re going to voyeuristically watch as teenagers erupt in violent rage, we have to ask why they do it. We have to understand what it is about our society and culture that conditions and nurtures this type of outburst (or, if you don’t believe that, then at least investigate more deeply whether evil is innate or learned behavior). Instead, the play presents us with hard truths ripped from the headlines, but delivers no insight on them.
The story hurtles toward a violent conclusion, but because we never much care for any of the characters, it’s hard to process this as anything other than a rote and inevitable climax. The audience flinches out of reflex rather than real feeling. If the characters had been less stereotypical (chubby best friend, beautiful and bratty popular girl, intelligent scholarship kid, the “new” girl, and the jock), then we might have had something more compelling. The reason the film The Breakfast Club worked is because John Hughes excelled at finding universal fears and angst in complex, dynamic teens (he may have labeled them with arch names, “Jock,” “Basketcase,” “Brain,” etc., but he took care to show us how shallow those labels were). Stephens never bothers.
In its tale of high school students, the play requires an ensemble of young actors and the ones in this production are very green. They have good instincts, but all their characters lack depth (the writer fails to provide it and they aren’t able to inject many more layers than what they’ve been given to work with). Falling victim to the writing, they often come off as one-note through no fault of their own. Even when they do find moments of emotional truth in the script, these moments are obscured by their inconsistent dialect as they attempt to situate us in Stockport, a borough of Manchester in the northwest of England. A Northern dialect is quite challenging and no one here manages to nail it; everyone veers between more standard RP and over-exaggerated Northern tones (and even hints of their native American ones).
Nick Marini, Story Slaughter, and Kenney Selvey do the strongest work, grounding their characters with a strong sense of realism. Slaughter does some of the best dialect work and is quite believable as a kindly girl who finds herself stuck in a peer group that disgusts her. Selvey imbues outsider Chadwick with a raw undercurrent of vulnerability. He delivers the diatribes of an intellectual superior (who is equally repelled and envious of his peers) with aplomb. Marini is charming as the protein-shake swilling class bohunk — though he has less dialogue than many of his cast-mates, he becomes the easiest to root for with his winning performance. Zachary Grant also offers compelling work as William, a young man coming apart at the seams. His moments of frenzy prior to the play’s climax hint at what’s to come without ever telegraphing it. Yet, he could benefit from more dynamic writing and crisper direction.
Though the cast makes an admirable effort, Punk Rock is a record you should leave on the shelf.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.; Thurs.- Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through May 14th; www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.