Several years before Simon Stephens adapted “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” for the stage (now on Broadway), the playwright wrote the far more in-your-face “Punk Rock,” about a group of troubled English private school students, which has now opened Off-Broadway in a scorching production by MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theater.
Shy, curly-haired William (Douglas Smith) is in one of the school’s little-used libraries, introducing new student Lilly (Colby Minifie) to the ways of the school and to the other five students as one by one they enter this isolated room in the school that serves as their hangout before, after, and in-between classes.
At first, they seem like normal teenagers, worrying about their exams, talking about music, gossiping, teasing one another, smooching on a desk. Tanya (Annie Funke, Hairspray on Broadway) has a crush on one of her teachers, fantasizing they’ll get married; Nicholas (Pico Alexander) plays Lacrosse and wears designer clothing that his classmates admire, and has lascivious thoughts about another teacher, not much older than himself. Chadwick (the always terrific Noah Robbins, Arcadia, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Vandal) is a brain who knows the architecture of Cambridge (which he wants to attend) and the number of galaxies in the university; there are traces in Chadwick of Christopher, the lead character in “Curious Incident”
But we learn something darker as we follow them over six scenes that unfold over several weeks, each scene change accompanied by the cast dancing in masks to some blasting punk rock — from “Kerosene” by Big Black, and “Eric’s Trip” by Sonic Youth to “Touch Me I’m Sick” by Mudhoney.
Lilly burns herself. Cissy (Lilly Englert) is neurotically obsessed with getting good grades. Chadwick is a nihilist who delivers a convincing argument for the end of days. Bennett (stand-out Will Pullen) emerges as a bully of the worst sort, with a hint that he is overcompensating for a secret attraction to men.
He picks on Tanya for her weight, but focuses on humiliations for Chadwick, ordering his classmates to help. William seems at first charming in his nervousness and obsessions; he suffers the normal aches and disappointments of adolescents, as when he asks Lilly for a date and she rejects him. But little by little we realize he is the most….off….of all of them. It is a role that Tom Sturridge took on in the original 2009 London production and that made him a star. We can’t know whether it will do the same for Douglas Smith (who is best known for his role in the film “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” and as the eldest son in HBO’s “Big Love”), but he does give a performance worth seeing.
Playwright Stephens is expert in escalating the tensions, aided by Trip Cullman’s nearly percussive direction, and a uniformly credible cast. The scenes through most of the play feel as gritty and authentic as Mark Wendland’s set, mostly empty bookshelves, walls painted institutional green with patches of white plaster and a clock that may or may not actually tell the time.
Before he was a playwright, Simon Stephens was a teacher and a member of an art punk band, and both experiences are evident in “Punk Rock.” But he also reportedly was influenced by the headline-making incidents of school violence, and the play swerves into territory alien to his personal experience that ramps up the intensity in a way that feels less real than what preceded it. If “Punk Rock” offers little special insight or education about the problems of adolescence, there is no denying that it is a lesson in how to make theater riveting.
Lucille Lortel Theater
Written by Simon Stephens
Directed by Trip Cullman
Scenic design by Mark Wendland, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Japhy Weiderman, sound design by Darron I. West. Dialect coach: Stephen Gabis
Cast: Pico Alexander (Nicholas), Lilly Englert (Cissy), Annie Funke (Tanya), David Greenspan (Dr. Harvey), Colby Minifie (Lilly), Will Pullen (Bennett), Noah Robbins (Chadwick), Sophie Shapiro (Lucy), Douglas Smith (William)
Running time: 110 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $69-$79. Student rush: $20. Under 30 years old: single ticket for $30.
Punk Rock is scheduled through December 7, 2014