Since subUrbia,Eric Bogosian’s 1994 skewering of disaffected white suburban youth, there’s been a boomlet of similarly themed plays – the likes of the late John C. Russell’s Stupid Kids and Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth joining subUrbia as live-action, Less than Zero-eque antidotes to the brat pack cinematic cliches of The Breakfast Club and its ilk.
Gregory S. Moss’ punkplay follows in that tradition, its dramatic cadence mimicking the fast, loose, and out-of-control rhythms of the music that provides its title. It’s morning in America as the lights come up on the Pavement Group’s staging of punkplay, and the audience is about to be get a 30-second overture-as-American-history-lesson that is a micro-masterpiece of crude, honest humor and skewering satire.The voiceover providing the decades-at-a-glance description sounds weary, ironic and bored. Not coincidentally, those are the traits that define Mickey (Matt Farabee) and Duck (Alexander Lane), the disaffected high schoolers whose search for meaning in their one-horse town, (located, Moss explains lest the audience think things are perhaps better elsewhere, in a one-horse county in a one-horse state, in a one-horse country in a one-horse continent on a one-horse planet) lies at the core of punkplay.
The title is a bit misleading: There is a surprising dearth of actual punk music woven through the text of punkplay. When Mickey describes a life-changing musical moment and then reverently drops a record onto a turntable to play the tune, the anticipation for revelatory audio becomes almost palpable. But what follows isn’t a seminal Sid Vicious track or a Minor Threat masterpiece.It’s the crackle and hum of blank vinyl. The guide to the music’s impact is visual rather than sonic, as Mickey’s face takes on the sort of blissful glow you might expect to see on the face of a Born-Again Christian witnessing the Rapture.
Music or no, director David Perez has a keen ear for the confused, anti-everything angst of lost youth looking for meaning in the brave new world of cable television.The evolution of Mickey and Duck is part visual assault (costume changes take place on stage with Duck and Mickey pulling off clothes as if they were trying to rip free of their very skin) part rapid-fire dialogue (the two don’t so much converse as they hurl words at each other like grenades.)
Within all Mickey and Duck’s confused defiance, Moss builds a biting irony. Punk, insists Duck with a pure, white-hot righteous certainty, is the end of music. It is also power and pure truth. By donning a studded dog collar, one says to the world, “Look at me,” and announces that one is not part of the mindlessly conforming, Izod-wearing,preppie jock teenage mainsteam that can’t handle the truth.
Of course what Duck doesn’t see is that in his allegiance to magenta Mohawks, he’s marching in conformist lockstep with the same rigor as the football players he despises. The trappings are different, the attitude is the same. Duck and Mickey might not worship the high school demi-gods on the homecoming court, but they’re as enamored and awed by hard-core punker Chris Sawtelle (Keith Neagle) as any JV bench sitter ever was with the Varsity captain. When Chris declares that Duck and Mickey “look(s) like you got struck by fa(g)got lightning,” Duck seems to physically crumble in humiliation.
The irony doesn’t stop with punkplay’s deconstruction of the punk aesthetic. Moss uses sex – bestiality in particular – to underscore his point about the absurdity and cluelessness of two teenagers stuck in a suburban wasteland during the Reagan years. A scene with Mickey and Duck trying to wrap their minds around the girl-on-polar bear action of a “zoo porn” video is flat-out hilarious. And when Duck starts lecturing Mickey about how you can skip high school if you pass the IUD test, it becomes crystal clear that despite his affinity for safety pin accessories, Duck is not the sharpest tool in the shed.
Punkplay isn’t anti-punk so much as it’s anti-poseurs. Yet in Lopez’ direction, the story becomes one of poseurs that are easy to empathize with. Duck may be a complete and utter douche on a regular basis, but in Lane’s performance, the wounded, frightened kid just below the abusive, overly macho surface is never far from view.
But it’s Farabee’s more contemplative, questioning Mickey that commands the show. Mickey’s sweet infatuation with a girl from his math class (Tanya McBride, who delivers an outrageously hilarious monologue about inciting revolution by reading The Topic of Cancer to truckers), his connection with doomed 1960s teen singing sensation Frankie Lymon and his willingness to forgive Duck’s insecurity-driven abuse crate a character of memorable humanity wrapped in the trappings of a teenage nihilist.
punkplay loses steam when it abruptly veers into dreamscape surrealism; the last scene lost us with its god-in-the-record-player pronouncements. Even still, Perez has directed a piece of harsh, raw integrity, played out with maximum intensity on Grant Sabin’s appropriately shreddable set. There’s real pain in the posing, and it shines through – along with a touching vulnerability – in the kids of punkplay.
And did we mention the cast is on rollerblades for the virtually whole show? It’s a gimmick sure, but unlike Starlight Express, it’s a gimmick with substance, and one that gets to the heart of an almost-lost generation.
Punkplay runs through April 25 in the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted. Tickets are $20, $12 students and pay-what-you-can Wednesdays. A three-play pass to the Garage Rep series also including XIII Pocket’s Adore and Dog & Pony’s The Twins Would Like to Say is $45. For a performance schedule and ticket information, click here or go to http://www.steppenwolf.org.