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A CurtainUp Review
Stupid Kids
by Les Gutman

Stupid Kids is a study in coincidence and consequence, on-stage and off. That the off-stage story is perhaps more significant than the one on-stage should not detract from the play on its own merits. There are a host of reasons it falls into the "ought-to-be-seen" category.

Let's deal with the external first. Before succumbing to AIDS in 1994, John Russell had the good fortune to cross paths with two people who are among the brightest of bright lights on the current theater scene. The first is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. Russell studied under her in Brown's MFA playwriting program, and her influence on his work is manifest. Even in its inchoate form, Stupid Kids reflects the honest voice, clarity and wit that are her trademarks. Albeit imperfect, it gives us a peek at Russell's unfortunately unexpandable potential. The second is the sine qua non of this production, Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer.

During Russell's waning days, Mayer promised his friend that he would shepherd Stupid Kids to the stage. He has done more than keep his promise. In addition to at least massaging the script (author credit remains in Russell's name exclusively), Mayer has enthusiastically embellished it with enormously clever direction. He has transformed a modest if challenging play into an exciting one that seems to bridge a generation gap in an important way. It is not without significance that he has also brought along for the ride some of his favorite design collaborators and now, in support of the play's transfer from the WPA Theatre to a commercial venue, a host of major league producers as well.

The play itself builds a satire on the shoulders of another "path-crossing." Four kids from a suburban high school (for what I might call generational accentuation, it's called Joe McCarthy High) meet in juvenile hall. They have arrived there for different reasons, and via different trajectories. Tall, thin, blond and conservative in appearance, Judy Noonan (Shannon Burkett) is a part of the "in" crowd. She dates Buzz, the coolest guy in school. In the pokey, she meets and instantly falls for Jim Stark (James Carpinello). A new kid at the school, he's a tough city boy with a great body and little fear. He quickly proves his mettle and makes it "in": both he and his right to date Judy are "sanctioned" by the powers-that-be.

The other two kids seem happily unsanctionable. (It later turns out both are also gay.) John Crawford (Keith Nobbs) and Jane Willis (Mandy Siegfried) are would-be intellectual, poetry-writing outcasts. In this school, one apparently rebels by affecting a nickname. He is known as "Neechee" -- Nietzche spelled phonetically to make it "accessible," he explains; she is called "Kimberly," after Patti Smith's younger sister. (Yet another stab in the hearts of baby-boomers, rebellion is defined here in terms of a 70's icon.) Although it's not explicit, the exuberant -- and excellent, but fairly loud for those who need forewarning -- musical selections included in the show suggest it is set in the early 90's.

It's a story that has probably played out in every high school in the history of education, but it is told here smartly, with great affection for the characters and in a language that would satisfy Neechee's demand for accessibility. It is a story one might regard with a dismissive rolling of the eyes until realizing this sort of adolescent experience (or inexperience, as the case may be) isn't really trivial at all. The play's structure has a few holes, and its progression requires a few leaps of faith, but the weak seams have been patched nicely by Mr. Mayer and company, and the end result is both warm and funny.

The four young actors are splendid, and Michael Mayer's attention to detail has transformed their performances and the script on which they are based into art. Nobbs, with the most recent personal high school experiences of the cast members, telegraphs all of the nuance and complexity of the idealistic yet fragile Neechee; Siegfried combines the toughness of Kimberly's urban warrior exterior with the revealing tentativeness of exploring uncharted terrain. Both are able to distill the humor and irony from their characters without becoming parodical.

The talented work here extends behind the scenes as well. David Gallo's stark but inventive black and white set permits action to evolve with almost slide-show quality integration in a bright windowbox foreground and a dark, multi-purpose background, both boldly and handsomely lit by Kevin Adams. Michael Krass's costumes and Laura Grace Brown's sound aptly accent the production's tenor.

This is a play that should be considered not so much for what it says, perhaps, but rather how it says it. It conveys smug earnestness without becoming smug itself; it lets us laugh with its characters rather than at them. It's a kind of balance that allows Kimberly to explain she has written a letter as a poem because "she can't make her feelings into grammar", shortly after telling Judy to cut the "Sylvia Plath pessimism." Currency is maintained, but not at the expense of transcendence. Some may not relate to the explanation of the importance of Ramen noodles to satisfying the "munchies", but everyone should be able to relate to Neechee's cautious maxim: "Never believe what they write on the desk."

by John C. Russell 
Directed by Michael Mayer 
starring Shannon Burkett, James Carpinello, Keith Nobbs and Mandy Siegfried 
Scenic Design: David Gallo 
Costume Design: Michael Krass 
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams 
Sound Design: Laura Grace Brown 
Musical staging by Ken Roberson 
Century Theatre, 111 East 15th Street (Union Square/Irving Place) (212) 239 - 6200 
through October 31, 1998 
The Century Theatre run closed suddenly on Oct. 4 after 48 performances -- reasons vary but probably had some link to the fact that the house tended to be heavily papered in its final weeks.
Reviewed by Les Gutman September 5, 1998

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