Punk Rock is a potent cocktail of teen angst, bravado, and terror, fiercely shaken and currently served with cynical sangfroid at ion theatre in Hillcrest. Written by the assured young Brit Simon Stephens, a former teacher at the U.S. equivalent of high school in a suburb of Manchester, the play immerses the audience in the claustrophobic world of seven teens about to complete their secondary education.
Unlike Alan Bennett’s 2004 The History Boys, the academic milieu of Punk Rock is co-ed and free of any professorial presence. Stephens uses the school’s upstairs library reserved for sixth form (i.e., senior) students as his pertri dish, as we clinically observe just under two hours of hazing, prevarication, and bullying.
Until the play’s surprising denouement—which I am not going to reveal—there is little action to drive the plot. Lilly, an attractive
transfer student played with confidence and agility by Lizzie Morse, works her way through the school’s cliques and lands Nicholas (Ryan Casselman), the resident muscle-bound jock, behind everyone’s back. Nerdy and clumsily extroverted William, intensely conjured by J. Tyler Jones, is the first student to encounter Lilly, and William dominates much of the play’s banter with his boasting and anguished attempts to woo Lilly.
A subset such as this needs a bully, and Benjamin Cole’s arrogant, menacing Bennett fills this niche, although his whiplash verbal vilification proved far more frightening than did his half-hearted physical assaults. Brainy science geek Chadwick, given a surprisingly feisty twist
by David Ahmadian, is the object of Bennett’s incessant gay bashing, although the playwright quite intentionally gives no conclusive evidence that this character actually is gay.
Samantha Vesco’s touchingly sympathetic Tanya endures ridicule because of her weight, and her closest ally, the anorexically thin honor student Cissy (Samantha Littleford), reveals Tanya’s deepest secrets with sneering nonchalance. Charles Maze handles the one adult role with studied restraint, but I won’t describe his role because it would reveal too much about the play’s ending.
If these characters and situations reek of cliché, let me assure the reader that Stephens redeems himself in two ways. His dialogue has the satisfying rapidfire tempo and searing invective that would make David Mamet proud, and the violence of his denouement puts this play directly at the center of today’s headlines (and that is the only hint I’m doling out!).
I am not certain what moral Stephens wishes us to draw from his tale. Have teens simply absorbed their parents’ striving and incessant competition without their subterfuge of mannerly facade? Is Stephens judging his own generation’s faults through the funhouse mirror of the teen microcosm? Or is this 2009 play merely an academic’s virtuoso etude?
Keeping up ion’s current run of highly engaging productions, Director Glenn Paris demanded an exhilarating pace without sacrificing verbal comprehension, and Assistant Director Gemma Grey coaxed a pleasant diversity of consistent English accents among her charges. Claudio Raygoza’s neatly arranged library proved tasteful, even inviting, and Courtney Fox Smith’s school uniforms were gloriously over the top, [php snippett=1] notably the bright red trim on the guy’s jackets. I thought Melanie Chen’s sound design leaned a bit heavily on incessant industrial drones.
Punk Rock may be little more than a craftily assembled contemporary alternative to The Mousetrap, but it held me quite handily in its grasp, and I doubt its identity will fade like the imprint of so many new plays that come down the pike.
[box] Punk Rock is a west coast premiere staged by ion theatre company. The production runs through March 9, 2013.[/box]