For all those oldtimers like me who may have forgotten, high school was not only about pimples and going steady and sock hops, even back in 1908 or whenever I was there. Playwright John C. Russell contributed an important link in the chronicling of American culture with his 1991 play Stupid Kids, now making its belated LA premiere at the celebrated Celebration Theatre. The late writer’s generation-gapless and still contemporary Romeo and Juliet on Ecstasy-esque tale follows the lives of four suburban teenagers trying to weave their way through the minefields of falling in love and trying to decide if they give a shit about living within the boundaries of acceptable social behavior.
Even though the premise and characters in Stupid Kids might at first seem trivial, Russell gave his creations an amazing facile predilection for communicating in clumsily poetic declarations, clearly speaking about their plight as they waver precariously between adolescence and adulthood with, obviously, very little help from parents or adult role models. Falling in interconnected lovelust in juvenile hall after being busted together at a rave, the story of this quartet of Joe McCarthy High students (now there’s a clue from the playwright for ya) suddenly transcends predictable behavior, going beyond their enviably ample supplies of hash, ‘ludes and Entemann’s cinnamon rolls to explore the heart of what it’s like growing up “reeking of America.”
If at first the romantic fumblings and youthful angst of these Stupid Kids might be dismissed or instantly relegated to the Breakfast Club part of your memory banks, soon it doesn’t all seem, well, so stupid after all. That doesn’t mean Russell’s script is perfect—his writing is more heartfelt and timely than it is accomplished on several levels—but there’s a certain universal poignancy in the lovelorn antics of his play’s two standard-issue popular kids Jim and Judy as they totally miss that their friends Neechee (“like that fucked up philosopher except I spell it phonetically”) and Kimberly (named after Patti Smith’s underachieving sibling) are in love with them. Add in that it’s the testosterone-heavy Jim that Neechee wants to call his own and the ever-ovulating Judy who’s the object of Kimberly’s desire, and the flying of sparks is somewhat inevitable.
Again, all this could become rather clichéd in the hands of a less gifted director than the Celebration’s artistic director Michael Matthews, who moves his actors around with the same attitude as one professed by one of Russell’s characters: “Keep it minimal; keep everything minimal.” Matthews’ continuing ability to present almost every play he’s tackled on the tiny Celebration stage with consummate skill, arranging innovative visual tableaus without leaving the sense that his often quirky and potentially pretentious staging could easily overpower the production, is fast proving him to be one of the freshest and most promising directorial talents in Los Angeles.
Of course, casting always helps and here, too, Matthews and Jami Rudofsky have united to make Stupid Kids more of an occasion than it could have become, especially 17 years after it was first presented in New York. LA newcomer Michael Grant Terry and that ever-radiant local theatrical treasure Tessa Thompson are simply wonderful at creating potentially plasticy in-crowders Jim and Judy, complete with all of their characters’ built-in needs to stay on top in the popularity sweepstakes one might expect. Regardless of their inevitable stereotypical behavior, both exceptional young actors also manage, with Matthews capable guidance, to dig deeply below the pretty surfaces of these kids to find the potential tragedy in lives being led into all the wrong places in the feverish desire to remain objects of communal adoration and respect. You just know that once Jim and Judy leave the demandingly narrow confines of acceptability at McCarthy High and face the real world, they’ll be the ones to fall apart first.
On the other hand, although it’s Neechee and Kimberly for whom we feel the sorriest, as their love-that-dares-not-speak-its-name leaves them outcasts in so many regards, it’s also not hard to see—especially considering the knockout performances of Ryan Spahn and Kelly Schumann—who will emerge the survivors long after these kids grow up and get a lot less stupid. Schumann, who was so good last year in the Celebration’s Beautiful Thing, plays a similar character but has a far better chance to make Kim more multi-faceted than the drugged-out bluecollar London teenager she assayed so well back then. Above all the others, however, it is the understated, nuanced performance of Spahn that will ultimately break your heart, seamlessly conveying both the complexity and the fragility of the experience of growing up gay in a repressive community—and managing to survive the ordeal with a brainy, snappy humor and a fierce hold on one’s own personal ideals.
As was the case last year with Beautiful Thing, this fine revival again heralds Michael Matthews’ commitment to rediscover overlooked gay-themed theatre and reinvent it even better than it was in its original materialization. Featuring the Celebration’s usual fine production values (particularly Cricket S. Myer’s sound design and spirited choreography by Marvin Tunney), there’s an intrinsic lingering melancholy hanging over the LA debut of Stupid Kids that Russell, who died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 31, might have had a voice in the American theatre which could have matured along with his writing. Once again, we’ve been robbed of that possibility by the kind of political leadership and Red State attitudes at places like Joe McCarthy High, places where intolerance is still alive, well, and worn like a badge of honor. This is a feeling that envelops this production like a gentle cloud; let it be a wake up call to anyone ever considering voting anything but Democratic next fall, so that Russell’s early snuffed-out contribution to our culture, as well as so many other acts of random humanity, do not go in vain.
Stupid Kids plays through Mar. 23 at the Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 323.957.1884. For more information, visit www.celebrationtheatre.com