Without an excessive amount of ballyhoo, Simon Stephens has become one of the most important contemporary English playwrights.
Marianne Elliott's brilliant production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time packing them in on Broadway uses Stephens' adaptation from the Mark Haddon novel. His version of Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, currently at London's Young Vic and directed by Katie Mitchell, may be the best presentation of that classic I've ever witnessed.
Now his Punk Rock, first produced in 2009 at London's Lyric Hammersmith, where he's an associate artist, arrives at the Lucille Lortel with an ear-splitting blast of music (Darron L West, the sound designer, keeping the cacophony up throughout) and with jarringly eye-popping lighting effects (Japhy Weideman, also keeping the glare up throughout).
All the stay-wide-awake light and sound accompanies action taking place in the not very well-provided senior-class library at a Stockport school in England's north country. There, a group of privileged students hang out when they're not scheduled for a class or when they're scheduled for a class but don't feel like going.
The first of the uninviting institutional-room's occupants, William Carlisle (Douglas Smith) and Lilly Cahill (Colby Minifie), are engaged in a seemingly friendly conversation during which he's welcoming her as a newcomer and showing her some of the ropes. But it doesn't take long for patrons to twig to that fact that the seven student regulars populating the space are whacked out in one way or another.
The most menacing is Bennett Francis (Will Pullen), who loves brutalizing not only his smart but lost girlfriend Cissy Franks (Lilly Englert). He also revels in victimizing plump and well-meaning Tanya Gleason (Annie Funke) and, most of all, in tormenting Chadwick Meade (Noah Robbins), a small and brilliant young man terminally depressed as a result of his brilliance. The only relatively normal one is Nicholas Chapman (Pico Alexander), who becomes involved with Lilly and never musters the nerve to speak up to pal Bennett.
Racing around during the not-quite-blackouts between the many scenes and sometimes sporting animal masks as a tip-off to their worsening inhumane attitudes, the entire cast--including David Greenspan as psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Harvey--is extremely vital. For this, director Trip Cullman deserves immense credit. His is a remarkable display of adolescent agitation.
Will Pullen, fast becoming one of Manhattan's best young actors, is sensational as Bennett. Rarely have I seen an on-stage bully I wanted so much to throttle. If I tried to single out the first among equals, I'd probably get into saying it's Smith as the deeply disturbed William. No it's Robbins, whose harassed Chadwick is constantly attention-grabbing. No, it's--but why go on? They're all bang on the money, and that includes their accents, for the most part. (Dialect coach Stephen Gabis had his work cut out for him on this one.)
There's much more to say about Punk Rock, and, to a certain extent, its flaws. In putting this clashing septet together, Stephens starts out well, but as their conflicts accumulate through sequences where they encounter each other in different combinations, the playwright begins allowing the characters to get away from him. Against logic, he also allows a volatile late disturbance to carry on uninterruptedly
I'm not convinced that some of Bennett's cruel behavior would have cowed the others into the silence that's their retreat here. Perhaps Stephens is exaggerating their rowdy, bawdy, self-destructive behaviors to make sure the point he's making about today's out-of-control youth isn't missed.
The result is that what goes on in the pressure-cooker library in front of and behind its metal shelves is horrifying as it occurs. But then it's easy to dismiss as just the wrong side of credible. (Mark Wendland designed the institutional-green-walled desert.)
Describing the action further, however, requires giving away more of the plot than seems fair. So read no more if you don't want a significant element of the developing events spoiled for you.
There's a turn in Punk Rock during a scene between William and Lilly--he's already put the moves on her several times and she's consistently rejected--when he suggests something to her that palpably indicates where Stephens means to take his pulsating drama. The sequence unfolds after a homoerotic exchange between Bennett and Nicholas. And that's not to mention an earlier moment when Lilly, alone and dismayed, bites into an apple as if she's Eve introducing sin into the world.
William's suggestion is the signal that what's unfolding is another post-Columbine work. It may be the first in which an English playwright has taken up the challenge to explain conditions leading to such unacceptable, untenable eruptions--or if not exactly explain them, then at least to lay out possible underpinnings. Nevertheless, the drama still proceeds to a familiar conclusion.
Whether that bloodied ground needs to be covered again is questionable, but the skill with which Cullman and cast execute their assignments isn't at all questionable. It's transporting.