Playwright Simon Stephens, who is currently represented on Broadway with "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," has another work on the New York boards. His play "Punk Rock" recently opened off-Broadway, courtesy of MCC Theater. Contributing critic of Time Out New York David Cote filed this review.
That grim and sadistic institution known as the English public school is notorious for its floggings and rituals. Then again, American high school is not much rosier: bullying, sexual abuse, gun violence. Simon Stephens aims to educate us in “Punk Rock,” his edgy but ultimately shallow group portrait of troubled British teens.
The episodic play is pitched at a cool and detached angle, so we can empathize with the kids but still observe their self-destructive behavior from a sociological remove. The action is mostly set in an empty library room where seven upper-form kids gather to flirt, gossip or blow off steam. They include new-girl Lilly, bullying Bennett, pretty boy Nicholas, nerd Chadwick, and then there is William, who does not fit any category.
William is fixated on facts and patterns; he swings from emotional deadness to tantrums. Soon it becomes clear he is on the autism spectrum, unable to form deep social bonds with his peers. He fancies Lilly, but she has attracted to Nicholas.
Bennett is the most obnoxious of the lot, and inasmuch as there is a plot to Punk Rock, it revolves around Bennett’s increasing viciousness toward the other students, including plus-size girl Tanya.
Trip Cullman’s production is sleek and stylish, just like its smashing young cast. The main problem is that William has to function as both cipher and catalyst. That is too much weight to place on such a wispy figure.
If you are looking for a cheap jolt of transgression and edginess, you could do worse than “Punk Rock.” But Stephens merely sketches out the problems facing teens today. He passes the class, but only barely.