'Punk Rock': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Noah Robbins and Douglas Smith in "Punk Rock"
A punchy and penetrating look at the darker side of school daze

Simon Stephens, represented on Broadway with 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,' reopens the wounds of high school in this impressive earlier work

In a now-classic season-one episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Patsy accompanies Eddy to a senior-year Open Day event at a secondary school, sniffing the air with a dirty smirk as she prowls a corridor. "Sexy smell, isn’t it?" Patsy observes rhetorically. "Takes you back. Testosterone and cheap perfume." That heady aroma of ripe teenage libidos wafts off the stage in waves in Simon StephensPunk Rock, a muscular little play that starts out funny and ferocious then reveals its compassion by degrees en route to a tragic and all-too-plausible denouement. The 2009 work has been given a first-rate New York premiere by MCC Theater.

Stephens wrote the stage adaptation of another adolescent outsider story, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is currently doing brisk business on Broadway. This earlier play was first seen at the Manchester Royal Exchange, not far from the town of Stockport where it’s set and where the playwright, a former schoolteacher, grew up. What makes Punk Rock so riveting is Stephens' skill at peering beyond the rampaging hormones, the dangerous energy and youthful insouciance to illustrate the casual cruelty of adolescence as unease escalates into alienation and horrific violence.

The influence of Alan Bennett's The History Boys is undisguised, as is the indebtedness to films like Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and perhaps even John HughesThe Breakfast Club. There’s also an acrid taste of tribal savagery right out of Lord of the Flies. But Stephens' language is very much his own, his pithy dialogue grounded in the naturalistic speech of social realism, with a pared-down, subtly stylized quality that makes it zing.

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Director Trip Cullman and his principal cast of seven tremendous young actors show an assured grasp of the play's jagged rhythms. They inhabit 17-year-old characters who are distinct individuals yet all identifiable as types most of us will remember from our school days.

Designer Mark Wendland's set is a shabby institutional library at an expensive private school, its shelves mostly empty aside from a few stacks of unloved textbooks. The central figure is intensely nervy William (Douglas Smith), gradually revealed to be a chronic liar. He makes it his job to map out the lay of the land for transfer student Lilly (Colby Minifie), who's fashionably contemptuous of the town she just left. "They were rude horrible pigs," she says of the Cambridge locals. "They were really rich and stupid." Like all the main characters, Lilly has a troubled side — she self-harms — beneath the careful construct she presents of a cool redhead. "It's quite Florence and the Machine," notes a female classmate, admiring Lilly's hair without the slightest trace of warmth.

With the quick strokes of an accomplished sketch artist, Stephens reveals both the public persona and the insecure secret self of each character. Bennett (Will Pullen) is the hunky bully, whose athletic displays of lust for his girlfriend Cissy (Lilly Englert) may be overcompensating for his confused sexuality. Insensitive Cissy makes excuses for Bennett's ugly behavior; she's a straight-A student, clueless about the real world and terrified of being stuck in the dreary town. Zaftig, bespectacled Tanya (Annie Funke) is far more savvy and self-possessed than her position as Cissy's sidekick might suggest. But she's not impervious to being wounded by Bennett's fat jokes.

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His preferred target, however, is geeky brainiac Chadwick (Noah Robbins), whose special scholarship tie is a humiliating advertisement of his class inferiority, but his intelligence gives him an unexpected upper hand in certain situations. Chadwick's scornful rant about the impending fate of pathetic humanity is a great revenge-of-the-nerd moment, delivered with chilling sense of purpose by Robbins.

The outlier seemingly immune to peer-group ridicule is handsome lacrosse player Nicholas (Pico Alexander), who instantly catches Lilly's eye while William remains in the dark, believing he has a chance with her.

As the students prepare for their exams, very little happens beyond the usual gossip, flirtation, friction and mockery, with the occasional bit of guarded speculation about what their future might hold. Each scene is punctuated by a high-decibel blast of the hardcore music that supplies the play's title, all of it taken not from Brit sources but from American bands, ranging from Big Black and The Stooges through Sonic Youth and The White Stripes. The students appear in these scene breaks wearing masks — animals, robots, mannequins — that might be a little obvious, but nonetheless add to the play's unnerving raw power.

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Stephens subtly turns up the volume on the underlying dread, and while the climax directly references contemporary events that sent shock waves around the world, the less an audience knows about it the better. Even if you do see what's coming, Punk Rock is far more gripping, insightful and excitingly theatrical than other recent stage treatments of the same subject matter. And a final scene involving a hospital psychiatrist (David Greenspan) raises sobering questions as to whether the violence was a result of mental disorder or merely the everyday minefield of adolescence.

The ninth character, who makes only the briefest appearance and has just a single line of dialogue, is Bennett's kid sister Lucy (Sophie Shapiro), on hand to show how children learn by example in a pattern destined to keep repeating itself.

In such an exemplary cast, it's unfair to single out any one of the seven principal actors for special praise. But Smith, best known for HBO's Big Love, is sad, scary and transfixing. Whatever you get out of the play, Cullman's taut production serves as a knockout ensemble showcase for a new generation of gifted stage actors.

Cast: Pico Alexander, Lilly Englert, Annie Funke, David Greenspan, Colby Minifie, Will Pullen, Noah Robbins, Sophie Shapiro, Douglas Smith

Director: Trip Cullman

Playwright: Simon Stephens

Set designer: Mark Wendland

Costume designer: Clint Ramos

Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman

Sound designer: Darron L. West

Presented by MCC Theater, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Foundation