Empty Space Theatre; ends Sun., June 26
Stupid Kids is Grease for the post-MTV generation. Every generation needs its Grease, I suppose. Whether every generation needs its MTV is moot. As the French like to say, we've reached the end of history: There was everything before MTV, and now this—a time loop of ironclad irony and obsolescent objectification. From this moment forward, everything is reference points, postmodern amalgamations, K-Tel compilations, amnesiac regurgitations, and flashpoint spasms of yesterday's style. Add to all this Henry Ford's infamous observation that "history is bunk" and we're approaching the awful truth.
Stupid Kids—or should we say, Stoopid Kidz?—is a musical nonapalooza of such surface shine and easy-pleasing pap that it's forgivable should you miss the Frankenstein's heart beating its tin drum somewhere in the synthetic shtick of a narrative. Written by John C. Russell, who died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 31, Stupid Kids is the story of four teenaged malcontents attending Joe McCartney High School: valley ditz Judy Noonan (Jeanette Maus) and hunky jock Jim Stark (Lathrop Walker), a cool straight couple (note the Rebel Without a Cause nod in their names); and geeky queer pair Kimberly Willis (Megan Hill), a Patti Smith– obsessed dyke, and mopey, closeted Neechee Crawford (Louis Hobson). Adolescent angst and young, star-crossed love will ever and always be an irresistible dramatic setup, and here in particular, the ducks are lined so neatly in rows, the trigger finger itches from the first song.
The music, by the way, should be of particular mention. First, because it is played live and played extremely well by the band Chapstick. Second, because the choice of songs gives a big, moist clue as to exactly what (and just whose) buttons this show is meant to push: "Kiss Off" by the Violent Femmes, the Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper, "Where Is My Mind?" by the Pixies. These are the new ironic oldies for the thirtysomething set, the generation that turned the word "alternative" into a mainstream lifestyle. Stitched together between these numbers is the timeworn story of geeky queers lusting after oblivious straights, all counting down to a drunken night when the inevitable stuttering passes are made and rejected. Along this dead-end path the characters stumble, filled with that singularly teenage mishmash of razor-sharp righteousness, querulous self-doubt, and groping bisexuality.
This, then, is familiar stuff, and audiences will never, ever tire of it. The problem here is that these characters are merely caricatures of caricatures, twice-removed and two-dimensional outlines of anger and confusion, and as such they generate zero sympathy. There are sharp one-liners and hair-twirling and frolicking as bloodless and mannered as marionettes. The play becomes a series of slightly mean-spirited skits masquerading as colorfully woebegone moments of nostalgia, with the author tipping his hand at every moment. When Kimberly says of Jim and Judy that "they reek of America," the line rings both hollow and too true. There is no tenderness to leaven the parody, so lines like "Shut up, Neechee, no Sylvia Plath pessimism on my time" become symptomatic of an overweening, postmodern cleverness.
This is no fault of the cast, which is obviously loaded with talent. And director Adam Greenfield, who executes some wonderfully choreographed numbers, does his best to make this a big, bouncy, buoyant production. Somehow, though, it all feels like shooting fish in a barrel— especially in the end, when Jim ends up a mechanic with a DUI and Judy ends up unemployed and pregnant, while both Neechee and Kimberly waltz off into a queerly self-actualized sunset. There's no grace in this sort of revenge on heterosexual conspiracies of normalcy, however deserved the target practice. I'll take The Stepford Wives over Stupid Kids any day.
The Ugly American
ACT Theatre; ends Sun., June 26
Moving backward in time from 21 Dog Years, his smash hit monologue about working at Amazon.com, solo performer Mike Daisey revisits his years abroad as a naive student finding his dramatic legs in London. At 19, he hopes to discover there the spirit of Gielgud and Olivier, to be taken under wing and taught how to fly as a young actor. But youth, as Daisey says angrily at the outset, is not wasted on the young. Instead, he claims, "the essence of youth is in the misspending of youth."
Needless to say, Daisey does not find his thespian mentors, though he does receive a sentimental education—of sorts. At night, after fleeing a study group presided over by the terrifying Anna, a drama instructor whose intensely watchful ways he compares to a wolf, Daisey hooks up with a fringe theatrical troupe on the other side of the river Thames. They're all on the dole save for his new girlfriend (whose financial secret explodes like a bomb at the monologue's conclusion). From here, Daisey's tale becomes a sort of fool's progress. As he traverses his dual lives, the story moves into the realm of professional misgivings and sexual darkness: The monologue hinges on a nine-minute simulated rape scene Daisey relates enacting with his girlfriend as part of the fringe group's staging of Vinegar Tom.
The recollection is leavened only by the humor and humanity of Daisey's delivery; it's to his credit that he can at once find the horror and the hidden attraction of such an uncomfortable situation. Working in the confessional mode, he treats his most intimate experiences with a candor that brings to mind the late, great Spalding Gray, an artist who regularly turned himself inside out for the sake of a story. And, like Gray, Daisey works with nothing but a table and glass of water as props, relying solely on the honesty of his subject matter to engage the audience's fascination. He's a natural born storyteller, with an exquisite sense of rhythm and an instinct for the ways in which his delivery should rise and dip according to the psychological peaks and valleys of his narrative.
He's found the perfect collaborator in director Jean-Michele Gregory. Just as filmmaker Jonathan Demme did for the movie adaptation of Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, Gregory uses only the subtlest variations in lighting to punctuate Daisey's story. As the performer digs into the darker regions of his tale, she allows the stage to grow imperceptibly dark, only to brighten it suddenly as Daisey segues into a new chapter of his telling. While the final light falls, Daisey intones, "You must remember this, you must remember this," as a kind of incantation for teller and audience alike to hold onto the past. It's unlikely either will forget this memory.