By Bill Marx.
If one were to make a young person aware of how ridiculous he was, the ground would swallow him up, or else he would plummet like a sleepwalker who has been awoken, and who suddenly sees nothing but the abyss. — Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless
Robert Musil’s 1906 novel, the grandaddy of stories that dramatize the connections among alienated youth, sadism, and brutality, pulls readers into the abyss, and, given the recent horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing and the shooting at Newtown, the Zeitgeist Stage Company lives up to its name by taking audiences into the netherworld of inexplicable violence in a powerful production (through May 25th) of Simon Stephens’s unsatisfying drama Punk Rock, a 2009 examination of ugliness, mayhem, and senseless murder among British secondary school students.
I am not familiar with Stephens’s other scripts, though he has accumulated quite a critical reputation in England over the past decade. Judging by Punk Rock, he is a proficient but slick TV-ish craftsman, leaving little to the imagination or to surprise. Facing the pressure of excelling at their A-level examinations, which will determine their academic futures, the script’s teens blow off steam by being casually nasty to each other in one of the school’s (more isolated) libraries—each lie, romantic disappointment, sexual conquest, social class putdown, and psychological humiliation is underlined, twice, as are all the half-hearted efforts at empathy. It is hard not to long for some of the nuance and indirection of Pinter amid the neon lit combat.
Accordingly, the pupils in the Stockport school are static types—Lilly Cahill (Emily White), the well-meaning new girl; William Carisle (Phil Gillen), the articulate misfit; Bennett Francis (James Fay), the vicious bully; Cissy Franks (Alexandra Marie Harrington), the good-looking, smart girl; Nicholas Chatman (Diego Buscaglia), the sane jock; Tanya Gleason (Alana Osborn-Lief), the girl who thinks she is fat, and Chadwick Meade (Alex Levy), the tortured brainiac. Given the times, the language and the insults are pretty graphic, the intimidation comes via cell phone, the weak and strong, men and women, betray each other mercilessly. Thus we are led (with big cues setting up the frenzy to come) on to the explosive climax, where someone goes over the destructive edge.
There is nothing wrong with director David Miller’s talented cast and sure-footed production, aside from how its agility at times reinforces the superficiality of the script. The sudden act of heinous violence is dramatized with taste and concern. In truth, I am not sure how a production could pull off the final scene, the new obligatory face-off between talkative evildoer and impassive clinical authority. (Am the only one who sees the laconic figure as a cop-out?) The encounter is supposed to explore the futile question of “why,” but it doesn’t offer much more than an air-brushed vision of the abyss, this time around accented by ghostly apparitions. A more interesting theatrical gambit would have been to examine the traumatized consciousness of the survivors—there are plenty of desperate calls for help in Punk Rock, yet none of the kids tell an adult what is going on. The real culprit in this play may be indifference rather than harassment or insanity.
Conventional to the core, Punk Rock seems more concerned with giving us an “unforgettable” glimpse of melodramatic madness amid rampant teen angst than grappling with the challenging task of examining thornier issues of responsibility. Still, the admirable Zeitgeist Stage production shows that the troupe is more than ready to present work that matters—the challenge is to find dramatists that also memorably seize the day.