British playwright Simon Stephens has had two plays premiere in New York recently: on Broadway, the spectacular and showy Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and, opening this week at the Lucille Lortel Theatre off-Broadway, the leaner and fiercer Punk Rock. Where Curious Incident explored the particular and peculiar inner life of one unusual young person, Punk Rock shows us the explosive, fatal chemical reactions generated by a bunch of unusual young people colliding with one another. You might like to guess which production ends in confetti and which culminates in gunfire.
Intentionally or otherwise, the listings for Punk Rock in some local publications have been vague. It’s been described as being about the trials and tribulations of British high school students in the lead-up to their exams, a description that may as well apply to anything from The History Boys to Harry Potter. For anyone who has actually seen Stephens’s play, though, it’s impossible not to think of it as revolving around and hurtling toward a single shocking scene: a school shooting.
On the page in Stephens’s script, no one really sees it coming. A scene begins with the familiar teenage angst over exam results, a gun goes off, and events escalate from there. The audience is taken off guard as much as the characters onstage – an effect that would certainly be enhanced by inexplicit theatre listings.
But by this point in the production, director Trip Cullman – who in general opts for standing-on-the-table theatrics rather than understatement – has provided a few too many clues about the horrors in store for these students. From the first uneasy interaction between new girl Lilly (Colby Minifie) and the wide-eyed William (Douglas Smith), we sense that there’s something unbalanced about William and his childish interactions with others. When he unsmilingly and humourlessly assures Lilly, “I’m serious,” we have no reason to doubt him.
Stephens’ script does hint at disquieting aspects of William’s character, especially his vivid fantasy life. But, almost like a kind of theatre-as-psychological profile, Smith dials William’s quirks and tics to eleven – the fault lines that will rupture in the final scenes – to the mockery and stuttering mimicry of resident bully Bennett (an excellent Will Pullen).
In fact, William comes across like a darker, dangerous twin of Curious Incident‘s Christopher, who had all the symptoms of Asperger’s (even though the syndrome itself went unnamed in the story). In that production, a glitchy dub step soundtrack hinted at the malfunctioning hardware of Christopher’s brain. Here, similarly, distorted, feedbacking guitar suggests that something has gone very wrong in William’s head.
There’s something uniquely distressing about watching the events of Punk Rock unfold in an American theatre. In Stephens’s chilling epilogue, William says, “I did it because I could” – a line that, in a country where the term ‘gun control’ is in danger of becoming an oxymoron, speaks to lax gun laws and a wider culture of violence.
But there’s also something about the fundamental approach of this production that softens the impact of the play. In the pivotal scene, where Stephens specifies that William produces a gun and fires it instantly, Cullman forewarns us, having William linger on the sidelines for a whole minute, gun in hand, sizing up his targets. This production of Punk Rock wants to tell us we might be better at recognising characters like William and anticipating such acts of horrific violence before they happen. The implication of Stephens’s script is far more frightening – that an event like this can occur when nobody expects it.
This review originally appeared in the Economist in November 2014.