Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock—MCC’s latest production, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theater through Dec. 7—chronicles longing, lust, and the evil tendencies of teenagers, seven in total, who hang out in a secluded school library. These sixth form students in Stockport, England have familiar concerns—they want to complete their exams, have sex, get into University, and leave their hometown—but in Stephens’ world these stresses turn sinister as the teens succumb to torture and madness.
Stephens—whose current Broadway adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is rightfully experiencing high praise—has created unrealistically hyper-verbal teenagers who possess the power to be unspeakably cruel. Yet the play never makes it clear why these particular students—including Douglas Smith (HBO’s Big Love), as the shy, stilted William, and Colby Minifie, as new girl Lilly—keep coming to the library, especially after some of the more horrific abuses inflicted by the school’s resident verging-on-psychotic bully (played with over-the-top fervor by Will Pullen).
Director Trip Cullman has drawn energetic performances from a bright cast that attacks scenic designer Mark Wendland’s appropriately grimy set with relish, with the titular genre music occupying the raucous scene changes. (At times, though, some of the action disappears into corners where actors are obscured in intentionally dingy lighting.)
Smith and Minifie are standouts in the cast, especially in the early stretches, where the principals get to bat around Stephens’ pithiest dialogue. As the brainy, tormented scholarship student Chadwick, Noah Robbins projects a defiant restraint in difficult scenes, but has to contend with a nihilistic speech toward the play’s end that exhibits playwright Stephens at his most clichéd.
MCC’s website expressly announces that the play was inspired by the events of Columbine, but Punk Rock exists in a theatrical world that feels far removed from the legacy of that tragedy. With hints of Spring Awakening and The Breakfast Club abound, Punk Rock is too concerned with artifice to yield a work that truly provokes. Alas, the violent, inevitable conclusion feels both frustratingly obvious and never fully earned. C+