High school sucks. Dealing with coursework, college preparation, friskiness with girls (or boys)…it's enough to give you a breakdown. But none of us probably had it as bad as the kids in Punk Rock, a 2009 drama by Simon Stephens making its New York debut in a production of MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel. Despite an exceptionally talented acting ensemble of nine, this two-hour drama of teens behaving badly is not much more than an unpleasant experience.
Thematically, Punk Rock is reminiscent of several recent theatrical dramas about the anxieties of youth and schooling, namely Alan Bennett's The History Boys and Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening. But this play is The History Boys on crack. It makes Spring Awakening, both the generation-defining musical and Frank Wedekind's scandalous 1891 source material, look tame.
Set in the library of a private school in Stockport, England, Punk Rock concerns a group of students preparing for their mock A-levels (the American equivalent of practice AP tests). As the play begins, the tall, lanky William Carlisle (Douglas Smith) is introducing his new classmate, Lilly Cahill (Colby Minifie), to his fellow students. Among them is Bennett Francis (Will Pullen), a sexually insecure bully prone to name-calling and face-spitting in the direction of the fragile Tanya (Annie Funke) and the intelligent Chadwick (Noah Robbins). Bennett's girlfriend Cissy (Lilly Englert) is a slow-on-the-uptake overachiever who can't keep a secret. Nicholas (Pico Alexander) is a quietly brooding jock who takes a liking to Lilly, even though William has already started planning his future with her.
Stephens paints a vivid, diverse portrait of friends who you can't actually call friends. This group is inherently recognizable: friends who seem to have bonded because they're the only ones who can get through it together, no matter how mean they are to one another (and they're really, really mean). A threat of violence hangs in the air from the moment Japhy Weideman's moody lights rise on Mark Wendland's airy, rundown schoolroom set. The MacGuffin-filled text and production becomes a game of "who's going to snap first?" An astonishingly brutal climax (not for the faint of heart) is more of a "duh" moment than a surprise, but it still shakes you to the core, and you won't feel right for quite some time after.
Director Trip Cullman guides his cast to performances that are as intense as all get-out. Particular standouts include the spellbinding Robbins, who effectively silences the bullies through a frightening monologue about the apocalypse; Pullen, who's just plain scary as a guy literally exploding with anger; and the alarmingly calm Smith, a kid who has visions of his classmates as robots and animals as pulsating music by Sonic Youth and The White Stripes play in his head. They all impress; even the irredeemably awful characters reveal shreds of humanity, and the actors embodying them find appealing balances between the cruelty and compassion.
But there's only so much a person can take in one evening. Punk Rock is neither an easy play to sit through nor an easy play to like, especially as performed in such an in-your-face venue as the Lucille Lortel Theatre. We all may have made it through high school, but if you can make it through Simon Stephens' version of it, you deserve to graduate with honors.