Stupid Kids: Welcome To The (Blackboard) Jungle

June 6
5:56 AM 2006

Have you ever dealt with the urge to laugh at the wrong time? Been unable to tell if someone was joking or not? This was the awkward situation I dealt with during the Sturm Und Drang production of Stupid Kids. The play by the late John C. Russell is  a high school melodrama set in the 80's and reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause.

Four students from Joe McCarthy High School meet in juvie hall. New kid Jim Stark (Topher Mikels) is the James Dean counterpart, brooding, hot headed, and desperate to make a name for himself. His eye is caught by Judy (Kate Morgan Chadwick), a popular Material Girl who is the main squeeze of the local gang leader. Judy befriends Kimberly (Trish LaRose), a Patti Smith fixated punk misfit, who carries a secret torch for Judy. Kimberly's friend and co-author of bad, angsty teen poetry is Neeche (Eric Lesh), "Like the philosopher, but spelled phonetically to be more accessible". Neeche, of course, has the closeted hots for Jim, both for his body and for the potential social acceptance an alliance with popular guy could bring to himself and Kimberly.

Neeche and Kimberly scheme to get Jim and Judy together, so as to overthrow the current school status quo and validate their own social standings, while still nursing their feelings for the shallow golden pair. Jim wants Judy initially as much out of a lust for power as for plain lust. Judy seems confused and somewhat ambivalent ("I deserve to screw someone, and here are two boys who desire me… I should probably screw one of them."). There are "tribals" (some sort of gang rumble), drug scenes, bizarre primitive rituals, and, er, dance sequences.

John C. Russell died in 1994 at the age of 31, having been a member of various new playwrights' groups, and a number of his plays produced in New York. Stupid Kids was first produced in 1998 by the WPA theatre. The Sturm und Drang Company production is the company's second play, Prometheus Passion having been their debut earlier this year.

I've been trying desperately to figure out if I disliked this play, or the production. As I said at the start, it was unclear how seriously we were supposed to take these "stupid kids". True, the angst and pretension rang true, and I'm certain that some of the melodrama was intended to be laughable, but when clashing with the later scenes of earnestness, I felt like I might be guffawing when I was supposed to be touched. Moments where we're presumably supposed to be laughing at the characters makes feeling for them at other times difficult. For example, Neeche and Kimberly both deliver impassioned poems about their secret loves. I was cracking up at Neeches' lines "Underneath the mask/ I burn Anarchy and Fire/ And the velocity of poetry". I can't tell if the poem is really that awful intentionally, or if it was just Mr. Leshs' delivery that made it seem hilarious.

Which brings us to out quartet of actors.  Mr. Lesh brings a great deal of energy to his performance as the pretentious poet, but he turns the kid into little more than a yapping terrier, making it hard to care about him, and his gay stereotype take on the role steals some of the from revelation of the play. As hunky lug Jim, Mr. Mikels certainly looks the part, with a tall muscular frame and greasy longish blonde hair. Again, it's hard to take him seriously, as he comes from the mutter-and-scream school of acting. Mostly scream.  Kate Morgan Chawick is appropriately adorable. Her voice, equal parts squeak and rasp, combined with her dead pan delivery make the moments of intentional humor work. Most enjoyable was Trish LaRoses' intense Kimberly. She managed to be melodramatic without going over the top, and created the one character I actually cared about.

Andre Diniz, who was the playwright and star of Prometheus Passion, directs and choreographs Stupid Kids. His direction may be part of the problem in tone, though the script is clearly difficult. However, one of the things that really bothered me was the dance sequences. Set to 80's pop classics like "Melt with You" by Modern English, the Pretenders' "Middle of the Road", Princes' "Lets' Go Crazy", and the inevitable "Kids in America", the dances are repetitive, over-long, sloppily executed, and don't further the story. Again, they made it hard to tell what to believe; more than one sequence featured cocaine use and simulated sex, which aren't mentioned in the script (Judy is a virgin, but the dances imply otherwise). They seem more of a chance to say "Remember this song? Weren't the 80s' cool?". I would love to read a copy of the script to see if these sequences are described by the author.

As a fledgling company in a black box space, production values are understandably modest, with sets, lights, and costumes all credited to Mr. Diniz and Mr. Lesh. The stage is littered with random 80's paraphernalia: junk foods, albums by Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, and Care Bears. The lighting is serviceable, and the punk/goth costumes for the misfit pair are great, but the popular kids don't fare as well. Jim, in his rebel loner white tee and ripped jeans, has a HUGE hole in the crotch of his faded blues. In addition to being very distracting, it revealed what appeared (and I can't be positive about this, since I swear I wasn't looking. Really.) to be boxer briefs, which were, according to my exhaustive research, not available until the 90s. Ms. Chadwicks' ensemble looks a sort of thrown together, which goes against her fashion conscious character.

All told, Stupid Kids may have been difficult to enjoy because it is, in fact, about stupid kids. It reminds us about all the embarrassing aspects of being at that difficult age without making us care much about them. Like my own high school years, Stupid Kids is an experience I'd just as soon forget.

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Margaret Cross MARGARET CROSS was born in Ohio, raised in Florida, and currently resides in New York City, where she is a singer and actress. She is (read more...)

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