When David J. Miller put “Punk Rock” on Zeitgeist Stage Company’s schedule for this season, he didn’t know just how up-to-the-moment it would become. Often, that sort of confluence is what theaters hope for. Not so much with “Punk Rock.”
“It’s weirdly resonant, in a way that I wish it wasn’t,” Miller says. “But it is.”
Simon Stephens’s play, which starts performances Friday at the Boston Center for the Arts, begins as a character study of a handful of British secondary-school students preparing for their pre-college exams. As the banter and romance and bullying escalate, one teenage boy commits an act of violence that, perhaps, is no longer as shocking as it once would have been.
“I picked the play last summer, like last August,” says Miller, who is Zeitgeist’s artistic director. “After the tragedy in Newtown, at a board meeting we revisited, you know, should we do the play? And, after discussion, decided yes, our reasons to do it were still valid, and it’s a way of continuing the dialogue.
“At that point, one board member said, ‘God forbid, it could happen again between now and the time we go up.’ And sadly, that was very predictive of what happened.”
Although the play doesn’t offer a precise parallel to either the Connecticut mass shooting or the Marathon bombing case, it does examine a teenager who commits unexpected violence in what was previously seen as a safe place. Miller wants to be sure that the production, which has been in the works for months, not be perceived as exploiting the Marathon tragedy in particular. He hopes, instead, that it will be seen as “a way of furthering the dialogue” about the roots of these events.
Zeitgeist had already planned to have audience talkbacks after every performance, some with members of the production and others with professionals in the area of youth violence. “I think that’s even more critical based on what has recently happened,” he says.
“What I say about the play is, it presents a single act of violence and presents some of the factors and triggers that caused that event,” Miller says. “It shows in that particular situation how it could have happened, to get at the question of why, which in all of these circumstances becomes somewhat unanswerable, because you can’t see inside someone’s brain or completely assess their mental health.”
The play, which premiered in London in 2009, takes place over a few weeks, mostly in the library of a secondary school in England, where the 17- and 18-year-old students are prepping for their mock A-levels, a practice version of the exams that will likely determine what university they can attend. Many of the students at the school are well off, while others’ parents had to scrape to make the tuition, compounding the pressure their children feel.
As the play opens, the amiable, self-conscious William (Phil Gillen) is chatting up newcomer Lilly (Emily White), on whom he already seems to have a bit of a crush. Their conversation is interrupted by Bennett and Cissy (James Fay and Alexandra Marie Harrington), who add a sharp edge to banter that turns jagged with the addition of posh Nicholas and Tanya (Diego Buscaglia and Alana Osborn-Lief). The brilliant, hapless Chadwick (Alex Levy) receives the worst of it.
“I call him our Sheldon Cooper,” Miller says, referring to the eccentric genius on the sitcom “Big Bang Theory.”
“I am usually cast as the funny, quirky guy, which I am,” Levy says. “I’m definitely quirky in ‘Punk Rock,’ but it’s more the dramatic side of the nerd.”
Chadwick provides his schoolmates with comic relief — and an easy target. But what happens pushes one of the others beyond the usual limits.
The cast members, including a couple of local college students, are mostly in their early 20s. The youngest is Levy, an 18-year-old senior at Newton South High School who will be studying acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the fall.
It’s his first role with an adult company after performing in several plays with the Boston Children’s Theatre. He says he’s had to learn a lot about the British education system for “Punk Rock,” and admits he’s still struggling with the accent. But getting into his character wasn’t hard.
“I could definitely relate to Chadwick,” Levy says. “The more and more I found out about him, the more and more I was like, gosh, that was me when I was younger. Because we all get bullied, and I definitely got bullied in elementary school and even in middle school a little bit. But you learn to move past it.
“The thing about Chadwick is, he is so past bullying. He is a very unique person. He knows he is going places; he is the brightest in the school, the most driven,” Levy says. “He is so far past the bullying that he is submissive to it.”
Levy says Newton South is a safe school with a strong program against bullying and especially violence of any kind. But the culture depicted in “Punk Rock” is quite recognizable as reality for people his age, even if the consequences are magnified.
Miller, 55, brings the perspective of a different generation.
“People who are a bit more mature, school violence just didn’t exist when we were growing up,” the director says. “You walked to school, and it was a safe place, and nobody worried. And the world has changed. There’s importance to understand how and why that happened. And for younger folks, this is kind of the world they live in. I think [the play] has appeal across generations.”
He just hopes that people in Boston aren’t too fatigued with stories of violent eruptions shattering the everyday.
The play “allows us to be true to our name — Zeitgeist — in terms of, it’s very current,” Miller says. “And with the increase in these events, horrifically, it was very much on my mind when I read it, that this is current, this matters, and this says something important if people want to listen.”
The Huntington Theatre Company and the Lyric Stage Company took home the most honors, with seven each, in the 17th annual IRNE Awards from the Independent Reviewers of New England, handed out Monday night at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Best play awards went to Bad Habit Productions’ “Gross Indecency” (small company), Gloucester Stage Company’s “‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys” (midsize company), and the Huntington’s “Our Town” (large company). Best musical awards went to the Lyric Stage’s “Avenue Q” (small company) and Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s “Daddy Long Legs” (large company).
The best new play award (large company) went to “The Luck of the Irish” by Kirsten Greenidge at the Huntington. Best new play (small company) was a tie between “The Fakus: A Noir” by Joe Byers at Centastage and “Reflections of a Rock Lobster” by Burgess Clark at Boston Children’s Theatre.
A complete list of winners is at www.irneawards.com.