EmptyCelebration Theatre, Hollywood
Through March 23
The gritty Celebration Theatre, its stage hung with tiny colored lights and covered in childish toys, is an appropriate place to present the Los Angeles premiere of "Stupid Kids," a high-octane play about teenage innocence and sexual discovery, and a tribute to playwright John C. Russell, who died of AIDS at 31 in 1994. Initially set in the '80s, its cultural references are well placed in a time when an all-encompassing retro sensibility is where we're at.
The story is taken from "Rebel Without a Cause," throwing together a quartet of high-schoolers arrested after a rave concert, two of whom are popular and two are not. It is endearingly in the mainstream American tradition of teenagers rebelling against they know not what, using a variety of theatrical devices and cool language to isolate the characters from reality and force them to confront their differences and identify their choices.
Accordingly, while it is loaded with angst, "Stupid" also is illuminated by dialogue laced with metaphysical delight that requires the characters to fight through the rush of their hormones in order to find the verbal eloquence with which they can articulate, and learn, and grow.
Overall, the story becomes secondary to the almost tangible sexual chemistry of the four characters: Jim Stark (Michael Grant Terry), the James Dean punk new kid in school; Judy (Tessa Thompson), the Natalie Wood trophy chick; Neechee (Ryan Spahn), Jim's puppy dog and wannabe lover; and Kimberly (Kelly Schumann), a riot grrrl of imposing physical and intellectual proportions.
Although each of the four actors finds the initial center of his or her role, the lack of substance in Jim and Judy limit the dramatic opportunities for Terry and Thompson. The former, with casual sexuality, takes the safer approach of deviating little from the James Dean stereotype; Thompson, by contrast, flounders in her attempts to flesh out her character more adventurously. Both, however, make up for their characters' ordinariness with heaps of convincing energy.
On the other hand, Schumann and Spahn, given really chunky parts to work with, give stunning performances. Schumann digs impressively from beneath an excess of makeup, attitude and brawn to find a gentler, more compassionate side. Spahn, with some brilliant comic timing and a restless romantic persona, allows his diffident sexual charms and desires to calm down into a semblance of balance until he, too, can authentically connect with his dreams. The final sequence, which ends with Spahn and Schumann wordlessly in each other's arms and their "normal" paramours slouching away to their ordinary future, is the play's most eloquent moment.
The production is surprisingly impressive, like a big Broadway musical scaled down in size but ramped up in ingenuity, veering from a kind of primetime sitcom professionalism to a poetry-drenched series of solo riffs and ensemble pieces.
Once word-of-mouth gets going, "Kids" is likely to appeal to a wide audience, from subteens to considerably older types, that wants to see provocative theatrical reflections of their own lives accompanied by laughter, longing and just a few tears.
Presented by Celebration Theatre
Playwright: John C. Russell
Director: Michael Matthews
Choreographer: Marvin Tunney
Producer: Brad Converse
Costume designer: Marjorie Lockwood
Lighting designer: Tim Swiss
Casting director: Jami Rudofsky
Kimberly: Kelly Schumann
Neechee: Ryan Spahn
Jim: Michael Grant Terry
Judy: Tessa Thompson