At the promising start of Rob Urbinati’s “Hazelwood Jr. High,” a squad of bouncing cheerleaders turns away from the audience to show the message spelled out on the girls’ backs: “This Is a True Story!” Such irreverence comes and goes in the play that follows, a fact-based account of a horrendous teen murder that can’t decide if it wants to be comic satire (a la “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom”) or deadpan social horror (like “River’s Edge”). Directed by Scott Elliott (whose apparent disdain for subtlety is fast becoming a trademark), “Hazelwood” and its cast are wildly uneven.
Based on court transcripts and other documentary evidence, “Hazelwood” recounts a 1992 murder at an Indiana junior high school. A 12-year-old girl named Shanda (actual names are used) is new to the rough school and finds herself in the middle of a lesbian love triangle. Toss in a mentally unbalanced devil worshipper, a kitchen knife and parents (never shown) who are either absent or abusive, and disaster seems inescapable.
The play, staged at a junior high school in Manhattan (though claims of being “site-specific” are dubious, since the production takes place on an auditorium stage), is populated with the same type of detached, disaffected sociopaths depicted in the movie “Kids,” which, not coincidentally, also starred young actress Chloe Sevigny. Unlike Larry Clark’s infamous docudrama, though, “Hazelwood” often goes for bleak laughs (and sometimes gets laughs whether it’s trying or not).
In scenes of varying length (distinguished by projections and separated by loud rock music) set in and around the Indiana school, this bizarre true story unfolds. Shanda (Stephanie Gatschet), a pretty, preppy blond transfer student from a nearby Catholic school, makes fast friends with Amanda (Amy Whitehouse), a tomboyish lesbian. Soon the two girls are going steady, much to the ire of Melinda (Margaret Burkwit), Amanda’s tough, vixinish girlfriend (one can only imagine what kind of inspired lunacy a comedy troupe like the Five Lesbian Brothers could bring to this archetypal collection).
Standard high school melodrama (minus boys) ensues, as Melinda slams her new rival against a locker, gets angry when she finds love-sick doodles on Amanda’s notebook, etc. But things take a turn for the worse when Laurie (Sevigny) becomes part of the clique. A drop-out who wears all black, drinks her own blood and claims to be possessed by other personalities, Laurie is the catalyst for tragedy. She, Melinda and two mousy tag-alongs (Heather Gottlieb and Brooke Sunny Moriber) kidnap Shanda, rough her up and terrorize her. What began as a prank gets brutal, ending in Shanda’s torture and murder.
“Hazelwood” draws most of its rather heavy-handed irony by juxtaposing sociopathology with teenage hijinx, an increasingly familiar device used to better effect in films such as the funnier “Heathers” and the artier “Heavenly Creatures.” Granted, Urbinati has an ear for absurd teen-speak (“She worships the devil. Do you like her hair?”), but director Elliott can’t resist broadcasting every joke. Droll is not in this director’s repertoire (he is, after all, the man who introduced full frontal nudity into the work of Noel Coward), and his work here is at its best when the play itself demands the blatant, such as when the four convicted murderers face the audience to describe their terrible childhoods.
A more delicate approach might also have drawn more consistent performances from the young, largely inexperienced cast. Sevigny is suitably blank-faced as the devil-worshipping psycho, and Gottlieb is the most polished as a plain-Jane type eager to impress the cool girls, but the rest of the cast often over- or under-acts. Each actress has good moments, though.
At times Urbinati wants us to care about these kids and their troubles, but just as often he scores easy laughs by mocking the big-haired mall-rat milieu. When he figures out what he wants to say about these pathetic girls, and how he wants to say it, his play might graduate to something worthwhile.