Shiner: Theater Review

Powerfully involving yarn of an adolescent couple obsessed with grunge-rock. 

Passion for music and authenticity fuels this richly detailed valentine to Nirvana and the grunge era.

It is 1994, in Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley, “the time between the Northridge earthquake and Kurt Cobain’s suicide.” Thirteen-year-old stuttering misfit Jake wanders into a meeting of an unsanctioned school club (G.R.U.N.G.E.: “Grunge Rock Underground National Great Escape”) to discover there is only one member, the precocious Margot, also 13, but as she says, being a girl, definitely older than he is.

Margot is fixated on Nirvana and preternaturally suspicious of “posers.” Testing and taunting, she gradually accepts him as an acolyte, initiating him into the convulsive passions of Nevermind. Together they determine to study the roots and influences of the music, adopt the outsider fashions and withdraw into their private world. The ultimate plan: score tickets for the band’s Hollywood Bowl concert and then climb the 101 Freeway overpass and jump together, since nothing more will remain to make life worthwhile.

PHOTOS: A History of Grunge

Christian Durso’s richly detailed script aims for a keen subjectivity, bringing us into the contradictory sensitivities of its young teenagers, while simultaneously providing an objective distance from which to observe them, relishing that the actors now playing them were roughly the same age in 1994 themselves. It seeks to be both a memory play and a theatrical identification with the moment, an ambitious challenge that sometimes founders on too many contending layers of self-consciousness at a time. Nevertheless, by the climax, one forgets the disparity in ages between actors and characters as the action achieves pounding suspense and an abandoned involvement in the immediacy of the drama.

Laila Ayad’s Margot makes a memorable portrait of thwarted intelligence and focused anger, while Graham Sibley’s Jake convincingly navigates the evolution from social cripple to charismatically committed misfit. The vividly abstract set design is comprised primarily of representations of cassette tapes, and the costume changes create precise gradations of character development.

IAMA Theatre Company banded together in 2007 as recent arts graduates (mostly from NYU), dedicated to producing new plays relevant to audiences of their own age. Their most renowned playwright, Leslye Headland, adapted some of her work at IAMA into the film Bachelorette. With Durso’s play they again present a distinctive voice that mines the past for contemporary relevance.

Venue: IAMA Theatre Company at the Working Stage Theatre (through Oct. 14)
Cast: Graham Sibley, Laila Ayad
Director: Neil Patrick Stewart
Writer: Christian Durso
Producer: Cymbre Walk
Set Concept: Haley Ho
Lighting Design: Leigh Spencer Brown
Costume Design: Adrianna Iantorno
Sound Design: Eric Saez