It could be said that modern drama is a footnote to Hamlet: one man up against the world. In the late John C. Russell’s 1991 play Stupid Kids, a teenager who nicknames himself Neechee is a candidate to be just such a loner.
Post5 is celebrating the OUTWright Theater Festival with the festival’s feature production of Stupid Kids, a play whose narrative moves in and out of a plot and characters that suggest the famed teenage angst-noir classic Rebel Without a Cause, with a hindsight fantasy of coming out in the ’90s and coming out ahead.
The celluloid icon Jim Stark, made famous in Rebel by the young James Dean, had a soft-looking physique, long hair for the time, and a pouty lip. Underneath his neat red package was a nihilism that rejected the hero worship of WWII vets and their boxed-up world obsessed with stability. Many generations of distrusting youths adopted his look, sneer, and sexiness. But maybe they forgot the end of the film, where Jim goes home and the implication is he’s ready to tow his dad’s line. There’s a tension between Jim and his friend Plato, and Hollywood rumors have propagated that Dean and Sal Mineo, who played Plato, were lovers. Stupid Kids takes the retro obsession of the ’90s with the past, but instead of delivering a Saul Bass-illustrated pays de cocagne, a land of luxury, the play reaches a step ahead.
Phillip Berns can play a disaffected youth well, and his Neechee is one part Kurt Cobain-in-training and one part Hallmark Greetings Rimbaud. Berns’ calculated anxious tension flickers between the anger of desperation and the coolness of social composure. His sunk-in chest, ’90s boy bob haircut, and razor-thin eyeliner stand out in his suburban ’90s high school. He’s Nietzsche, not Plato.
Stupid Kids’ take on Jim Stark is played by Jim Vadala first as a campy new kid on the block. He grabs some laughs as he parades his hyper-masculinity. It’s subtle, but there’s a blue-collar fringe to his act, and while he’s a big man on campus now, you can see through the veneer that this will be the only time he tops the food chain. His motorcycle has made him a darling of the pecking order. While James Dean’s Jim Stark was the promise of futility, Vadala’s Stark has decades in between, and his rebellion is futile, because suburbia became more than a lifestyle.
Neechee is the pained psyche of playwright John C. Russell; Kimberly, played by Jessica Hillenbrand, is his emotional ballast. Out of the group, she’s the most in tune with herself. Neechee is desperate, and trying for intellectual prowess, but lacks the outside resources to discover it. Kimberly is a wild horse waiting for the barn door to open. Neechee’s hero is a misread, syphilitic dead philosopher. Kim’s is a tank-top-wearing, unshaven lyric queen of bad girls: Patti Smith. Smith’s individuality is the gateway for Kim to explore her gender and feminism – not just modeling as an iconoclast, but practicing at revealing her inner life with a real voice.
Taylor Jean Grady’s Judy lends herself more to Lolita, a girl who’s more practiced at trying to escape unwanted advances than living the mask of sensuality she refines. We’re empathetic with Judy and Jim as the popular couple, because we see them through Neechee and Kim’s eyes. Grady’s Judy is an outspoken Seventeen magazine example of perfection, down to her choice in underwear. While she’s confused most of the time, she strikes back with scripts taken from advice columns. Judy has enough pep and charm to lead us along, and Grady makes us believe for a time that Judy will overcome being an object.
Post5’s Gordon Romei connects the storyline with a fast-paced montage of’ ’90s musical hits, and kicks off the party with his Purple Majesty Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, which begins, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life.” Tyler Buswell’s set re-creates the dread of institutionalized education, plastered with the ghosts of MTV, photocopied local band fliers, and the teasing of bad Sharpie graffiti.
There’s a painful emptiness in watching these kids get lost in their struggles and numb out. Neechee and Kimberly overindulge in bad poetry sessions. Judy overindulges in getting all her ego trips from boys who want to sleep with her. Jim overindulges in wanting power, just for power’s sake. All of them drink and get high; and while the two outcasts, Neechee and Kim, hope for more, that’s all the four share together.
Offstage is Buzz, the unseen enemy, who coerces Jim and Judy by rights of initiation. Instead of playing chicken on drag strips, there are primitive cult ceremonies revolving around violence and sex. The other initiation ceremonies are Neechee and Kim’s, the self-discovery and brave honesty as they grow through the process of coming out. The actual initiation is the audience’s: through the actors and play, they come to identify with Neechee and Kim’s embrace of their own homosexuality.
Much like the emotional order imposed by the Hollywood Hays Code, which had Rebel Without a Cause tidy up neatly at the end, Broadway had its own version. Theater had restrictions on showing and telling stories with queer subject matter. Russell’s play is an important coming-out story told with a tender compassion. Writing less than 30 years after the birth of American queer theater, during a time when the community’s identity was struggling in the throes of the AIDS epidemic, Russell chose to write about positive metamorphosis. Russell died from AIDS in 1994, at the young age of 31, and it may be that Stupid Kids is his contribution to the hopeful legacy that queer theater brings home.
Stupid Kids continues through June 25 at Post 5. Ticket and schedule information here.