A group of British teens hang out in their school library, discussing Skittles as a lunch choice, worrying about which university they’ll attend in the fall, talking about the music they’re listening to. But “Punk Rock,” playwright Simon Stephens’s portrait of teen angst, takes a disturbing and violent turn, and this Zeitgeist Stage Company production captures all the terror and incomprehension that go with it.
The seven individuals onstage represent a range of typical teens: There’s Cissy (Alexandra Marie Harrington), the overachiever who’s devastated by a B in English; Bennett (James Fay), her bullying boyfriend; Nicholas (Diego Buscaglia), the handsome jock; Tanya (Alana Osborn-Lief), the sensitive one; Chadwick (Alex Levy), the intellectual loner; Lilly (Emily White), the new girl; and the overeager and overimaginative William (Phil Gillen). None of them could be described as perfectly “normal,” but as William says, “I hate normal.” The most dangerous one in this bunch seems to be Chadwick, who, the group fears, may finally snap from Bennett’s relentless abuse.
And Bennett is relentless, never missing an opportunity to push everyone’s buttons with childish name-calling and threats of physical violence if he is disobeyed. The final straw seems to come when Bennett forces Tanya to paint Chadwick’s lips with her lipstick. But Chadwick shrugs it off with a speech that displays his intellectual superiority, and Tanya reports Bennett to her parents.
While Bennett torments his classmates, William’s flights of fancy begin to take on a desperate feel. When Lilly rejects his awkward amorous advances, he can’t seem to shake it off. When he pleads with Chadwick to allow him to stay at his house, his whining is irritating. But when he explodes at Bennett during the lipstick episode, his anger is righteous and deserved. He is, after all, the only person willing to stand up to the bullying, no matter what the cost.
As William, Gillen is charming and utterly believable, even when his imagination starts to spin out of control. All of the ensemble members inhabit their characters with grace and style, and White, as the self-assured Lilly, provides a lovely counterpoint to the needy William.
Once again, director and scenic designer David J. Miller manages to transform the limitations of the Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts into an advantage: The walls of the quiet library room begin to feel like they are closing in on the audience, as well as on the students in this drama. Even if Stephens tries too hard to analyze character motivation in the play’s final scene, Miller carefully builds the tension to its stunning crescendo.
As we live in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the ultimate violence of “Punk Rock” may be a little too vivid for some audiences, but Stephens’s ear for teen conversations, shifting alliances, and fundamental fears is spot-on.