The set-up is a tale as old as time—seven gifted prep school seniors with the weight of the world on their shoulders spend a lot of time hanging out, stressing out, and making out in the library, their haunt of choice. In Punk Rock, a play written by Tony Award-winner Simon Stephens now in its Los Angeles premiere at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, what begins as a classic story of teen angst gradually becomes something much darker, resulting in a disconcerting piece that will leave you unsettled and uncomfortable.
The action takes place in a stuffy, seemingly expensive prep school in Stockport, England, where a group of misfit 17-year-olds both clash and find common ground over their problems and sources of stress, some of which are far more serious than others. We open on the first day at the school for new student Lily (Raven Scott), an enigmatic girl who has immediate chemistry with Nicholas (Nick Marini), an earnest jock. Bennett (Jacob B. Gibson) bullies others to compensate for his own insecurities, while his girlfriend, Cissy (Miranda Wynne) is a classic perfectionist who obsesses over maintaining straight As. Tanya (Story Slaughter) is often the butt of jokes about her weight, while Chadwick (Kenney Selvey) is the brainiac outcast of the group. Finally, there’s William (Zachary Grant), who seems like your average teenager, at least until the true severity of his internal struggles is slowly revealed.
Stephens, best known for writing the recent stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (coming to the Ahmanson Theatre in LA this summer), builds tension masterfully throughout Punk Rock, which starts out with an innocent, almost playful tone. As tensions begin to rise, you cannot help but sit up a little straighter and feel increasingly uneasy. The first hint that these students’ problems run far deeper than lust and homework comes when Lily reveals to William the cause of the scars on her arms. Self-harm is merely one of the hot-button issues explored in this play—body image, sexuality, and mental illness are all at least touched upon, and I feel the need to mention that the final scenes should come with a trigger warning for those strongly affected by portrayals of school violence. Stephens drew upon both his own experiences as a teacher and the tragic Columbine shooting when crafting this story, and you will feel shaken by the time you leave the theater.
I was a bit surprised by a note in the playbill indicating the piece is set in the present day because despite the universal themes, the story itself feels strangely dated, which is perhaps a result of it being first produced in 2009. For starters, the set prominently features props reminiscent of another era—the library’s shelves are filled with old film canisters and typewriters. While the characters reference cell phones, not one is seen the entire time, which feels extremely far-fetched for modern day teenagers—although, their presence would likely impact the climax of the story, making it possible the writer chose to exclude them for dramatic purposes. As you would expect from the title, punk rock music is used during the transitions between scenes, and William’s personal liking for that genre is implied to be seen by some as a contributing factor to the actions he ultimately takes.
Punk Rock is very effective in the atmosphere it creates. Particularly within the intimate confines of the Odyssey Theatre, you cannot help but feel like you are right in that library as well. While the statement the shocking conclusion makes is certainly a strong one, and an ever-important reminder that we must pay attention to those who are quietly suffering, it is a statement that has been made many times before. The characters toe the line between complex and archetypal, and some are more fully realized than others. While William, Bennett, and Lily are the most three-dimensional, Tanya and Nicholas in particular remain vague, barely scratching the surface.
Also—and, I am going to delve a bit more into spoilers than I typically would for the sake of this point, so divert your eyes if you would prefer to be surprised—I found it troubling that William, who eventually is the perpetrator of a school shooting, was depicted as mentally ill. While it is never said outright, he manifests symptoms of schizophrenia. The media often blows the link between mental illness and gun violence out of proportion based on a couple very specific instances, resulting in harmful and largely untrue associations. I recommend this article in the New Yorker, which analyzes several studies to conclude that the actual link is “quite small and far from predictive.” I am a large proponent of thoughtful, accurate portrayals of mental illness in the media, and I was disappointed this one only amounted to a damaging stereotype.
That being said, the performances from this young cast of mostly newcomers are very strong, anchored by Grant as William. Punk Rock makes for a very tense, visceral theater experience, although it may trend too far towards being tense and visceral for the sake of shock value.
Punk Rock runs at the Odyssey Theatre through May 14th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with select additional performances on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. The play has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here. The Odyssey also offers discounted tickets for students, and 2 remaining performances (4/28 and 5/3) will cost only $10.