In 1978, I received an F on a high school English composition in which I wrote that the characters in the film Rebel Without a Cause were all losers. John, I wrote, was a babyish invert, too stupid to hide his crush on Jim, a loser whose idea of fun was running his car off a cliff and whose only charms resided between his elbows and his armpits. His parents, I wrote in my teenaged wisdom, were mean-spirited lunkheads, and his girlfriend a poodle-skirted cliché.
My 10th-grade English teacher was a big James Dean fan and, like a lot of movie lovers, he thought Nicholas Ray's movie about troubled teens was a masterpiece of insight and cinematic skillfulness. He would have hated John Russell's Stupid Kids, a complex and wildly entertaining riff on Rebel Without a Cause that upsets Ray's vision of coolness and gives its high school stars their crafty comeuppance. Fledgling Stray Cat Theater's production is a wily, well-informed one, crafted by hipsters and crawling with coolness.
In fact, much of this wonderful one-act plays like a frenetic music video. Its entrances and inventive set changes are stylishly choreographed by Ron May, whose clever direction keeps this oft-told tale of high school outcasts barreling along at a frenzied pace. Author Russell takes Ray's teenaged trio, grafts on a fourth character, and hauls them into the '90s via loud punk music and peculiar rituals that I trust real-life kids aren't actually enacting between classes.
Our heroes meet in juvenile hall: Kimberly (Lisa Pletsch), whose real name is Jane, is a punker-poet and shoplifter who worships Patti Smith, while John (who goes by the name Neechee, "like the philosopher only spelled phonetically, so it's more accessible") sets fire to puppies and rebels against liberals. They've fallen in love with two wanna-be cool classmates: Neechee (Patrick Nixon) with new-tough-guy-in-town Jim Stark (Christopher Mascarelli); Kimberly with snooty Judy (Natalie Karmo), a popular girl whom Jim steals away from her boyfriend. Soon, these kids are caught up in an oddly ritualized teenaged tempest that would have scared Nick Ray out of his penny loafers.
Stupid Kids is a cynical comedy that doesn't trivialize teen angst; unlike Ray, Russell, who studied under Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, understands that his characters don't see beyond themselves, and their dialogue -- part tone poem, part petty rant -- is full of the anger and isolation they feel. The story features two homosexual characters, but is about as gay as Monday Night Football; Nixon's and Pletsch's performances thankfully never stray toward the stereotypes we're accustomed to seeing. These kids may be queer, but they're nerds first, a fact that May and his fine young cast convey perfectly.
I started out thinking that the actors portraying these kids were stiff and self-conscious, but then it occurred to me that so are teenagers of every stripe. Each of them turns in a strong performance, though Nixon's Neechee is especially moving. Hugging himself as he delivers tormented speeches about his peripheral life, Nixon is one big, bespectacled nerve ending. We start out thinking we're watching a couple of hip teens falling in love, but Nixon's eye-of-the-storm performance telegraphs the truth: We're watching a love story between the two losers -- two outsiders who discover that the cool people they idolize are ordinary and boring.
Stupid Kids is anything but. The show has been extended, and its popularity proves that an old story, no matter how often it's been told, can be brought stunningly back to life.
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