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A CurtainUp Review

Hazelwood Jr. High

What would word maven William Safire say about a play about a truly sadistic murder described in its pre-opening publicity notices as based on a real 1992 "incident" ? Can such a benign word cover a murder most terrible made murder horrific since the murderers are four teenaged girls. This chilling tale of a pretty pre-teen, Shanda, (Stephanie Gatschet) who, like many new kids in school gets involved with the wrong group. In this case the group is made up of a particularly bad lot of older girls whose appalling family situations have led to devil worship for one and a warped sense of morality for all. And as if it wasn't bad enough that the boy crazy twelve-year-old discovers the new thrill of a lesbian relationship, she falls in love with Amanda (Amy Whitehouse), who's already spoken for by the tough Mel (Margaret Burkwit) .

As directed by Scott Elliot, who should add a middle initial G as in grim and gritty to his name, New Group productions Hazelwood Jr. High is a schizophrenic drama verité without a single sympathetic character to send audiences out of the auditorium of Intermediate School 70 with even a ray of hope that any of the perpretators of this grizzly crime have been changed by the "incident" . As its setting is billed as site specific -- (well, not really, since the real event took place in Southern Indiana and the scenes don't all take place in the school locker room, cafeteria and detention room) -- so the actors playing the girls around whom it revolves range in age appropriately from 14 to 22. It probably should be seen by social workers and school guidance counsellors but as long as society fails to provide the sort of net that could catch similiarly misguided and mistreated youngsters from self-destruction, they would probably be overwhelmed with dejection.

Why the schizophenic label? Director Elliott and playwright Rob Urbinati have worked hard to wring laughs out of the sort of idiosyncratic teen talk that parses the bizarre and the mundane into a single sentence even as they unfold the darker events in uncompromising slow motion detail . The film Heathers (with Winona Ryder and Chrstian Slater) succeeded fairly well but also not consistently with this sort of irony. In Hazelwood the successful ironies -- as when talk of hair, knives and drinking blood intermingle -- are outweighed by the excruciatingly long-winded dramatization of the "incident" which leaves the audience almost choking on its earlier laughter.

The flashes of black humor that do work are best illustrated in the scene showing four of the girls gobbling Mcdonald's French fries, with one exclaiming "I'm going to hate myself" -- not for the gruesome event in which she just participated but for eating those fattening fries. No "out, out, damn'd spot" for these girls! As the funny-sad teen talk doesn't jell with the general tone of the play, neither does the peppy mood created by the musical inserts and the gimmicky cheerleader jackets which when the six girls turn their backs to the audience announce the fact that THIS IS A TRUE STORY.

Since I seem to be filled with reservation about this show, let me conclude by pointing to the elements which make this play worth seeing despite its flaws.

The sociopathology unleashed by a society that often fails to save abused children from metamorphosing from victims to victimizers needs to be aired in as many ways as it takes to end this harvest of shame. Towards this end, the docudrama scenes are quite affecting, especially when each girl finally takes us back to the beginning of the non-childhood that led to this play's unhappy end.

The six young actresses, while not as smooth and uniformly outstanding as one might wish, all have scenes that support director Elliott's choice in casting them. Stephanie Gatschet gives Shanda just the right degree of precocious innocence. Chloe Sevigny, who comes to this from a prior role in a film with a similar bent (Kids ), imparts a nice touch of evil to Laurie, the most over the edge of the sextet. Heather Gottlieb is particularly strong as one of the two mousy hangers-on.

Last but by no means least is Derek McLane's imaginative set with its proscenium of school lockers which at various points amusingly and effectively metamorphose into a telephone booth and a gas pump at a filling station. As in The Maiden's Prayer which prompted our interview with him last month (see links below), he has once again made various places come to life and made it happen effortlessly. He is superbly abetted in this effort by lighting designer, Brian Macdevitt, especially in the shocking car scene.

Other New Group plays reviewed at CurtainUp: Goose-Pimples. . .Flatted Fifth. . .This Is Our Youth

Our interview with Hazelwood set designer Derek McLane

By Rob Urbinati
Directed by Scott Elliott
Featuring Margaret Burkwit, Stephanie Gatschet, Heather Gottlieb, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Chloe Sevigny and Amy Whitehouse
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting: Brian MacDevitt
Sound: Kurt B. Kellenberger
Intermediate School 70 on West 17th St. (betw. Eighth & Ninth Aves) (212/279-4200)
2/20/98-3/25/9; opening 3/05/98
Reviewed 3/07/98 by Elyse Sommer

The Broadway Theatre Archive

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