The Breakfast Club’s all-American teen quintet may have found themselves holed up in the high school library like the seven English “sixth-formers” of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, but the world inhabited by those 1980s John Hughes archetypes seems positively Disneyesque compared to the dystopia their contemporary UK counterparts call home in Stephens’ riveting slice of middle-class private-school life, now being given an edge-of-your-seat Los Angeles Premiere by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
Stephens (whose The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won him a 2015 Tony) takes his deliberate time in introducing us to his protagonists, focusing early on on Lilly (Raven Scott), freshly arrived at the Manchester-adjacent Stockport high school that William (Zachary Grant) has called home these past five years.
Soon enough, however, we are introduced to Bennett (Jacob Gibson), a handsome devil with a smitten and submissive girlfriend (Miranda Wynne as Cissy); Nicholas (Nick Marini), sporting both lacrosse-star swagger and the latest Moschino jacket; Tanya (Story Slaughter), who harbors a not-so-secret crush on her English teacher; and Chadwick (Kenney Selvey), academically gifted, socially awkward, and therefore most likely to be bullied, though it’s not immediately clear by whom.
Indeed, Punk Rock’s early, mostly good-humored chitchat among classmates (if not friends) might easily portend a slice-of-English-school-life comedy on the edgy side, and playwright Stephens merits major props for not telegraphing what lies ahead.
Suffice it to say that not only are these seventeen-year-olds preoccupied with upcoming exams upon which their university futures depend but also with issues of weight, sexuality (both overt and repressed), self-injury, intimidation, and the desire to strike back, all of which play a part in a dramatic one-acter that turns steadily darker and, under James’s incisive direction, steadily more gripping.
It helps enormously that James has cast Punk Rock with actors who are not only gifted (and refreshingly reflective of 21st-century ethnic diversity) but so close in years to the characters they play that their high school experiences remain fresh and alive and ready to inform their work.
Playwright Stephens reserves Punk Rocks three most complex and demanding roles for weirdo, bully, and victim, characters performed at the Odyssey by three of the most gifted recent college grads in town.
USC Trojan Grant’s stunning William is equal parts bravado (he claims to know the school’s “every nook and cranny”) and self-doubt (his tendency to embellish the truth if not out-and-out lie is a cry for attention if there ever was one) and the more time we spend with William, the more mesmerizing Grant becomes.
CSUF’s Selvey reveals a quiet intensity as bullied and belittled brainiac Chadwick, too cheeky for his own good around Bennett, a character whom charismatic Cal Artser Gibson makes as tyrannical of temperament as he is fair of face, digging deep into the insecurities that have made him both tormentor and tormented.
Scott’s Lilly exudes a self-confident pluck that belies insecurities running deeper than damaged skin; Wynne’s Cissy may be dating Mr. Supercool-and-Sexy, but her self-esteem issues have turned her into the human equivalent of a doormat; Marini’s class hottie Nicholas could clearly use more than a bit of his lacrosse field mettle in his interpersonal relations; Slaughter’s sweetheart of a Tanya has retreated into a shell that doesn’t fit the svelte adolescent ideal; and all four are absolutely terrific.
Finally, Mark Daneri’s incisive cameo as Dr. Harvey helps provide Punk Rock its thought-provoking coda, all of the above actors expertly dialect coached by Anne Burk).
Design elements are first-rate all the way, from scenic designer John Iacovelli’s vision of a “hermetically-sealed” library room as storage closet, to Haeli Parker’s neckties-and-blazers school uniforms, to Brian Gale’s striking lighting design that ranges from realistic to trippy, to Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design mix of effects and (quite appropriately) punk rock. And there couldn’t be Punk Rock the play without Matthew Glave’s ferocious fight choreography.
A nihilistic Breakfast Club for the new millennium, Punk Rock is Los Angeles intimate theater at its most electrifying.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles. Through May 14. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Also Thursday April 27 and Wednesday May 3 at 8:00. Reservations: 310 477-2055
April 12, 2017
Photos: Enci Box