Those who look back on high school as a period of placid, carefree contentment will probably want to give the WPA Theater’s “Stupid Kids” a pass. They won’t get it. (And may they also drop dead.) In John C. Russell’s strange and strangely poignant comedy, a suburban high school is cast as torture chamber , science-fiction movie, morality play and bad biker melodrama rolled into one endlessly contorting picture. In other words, it’s high school to a T, as anyone who was paying attention can attest.
In Russell’s stark, humorously archetypal world, a quartet of mismatched kids from Joe McCarthy High meet at the police station, where they’ve all been detained for various minor offenses. Kimberly (Mandy Siegfried) and Neechee (Keith Nobbs) are the obvious and all too self-aware outsiders, signaling their unwillingness — really their inability — to conform by their funky haircuts and slacker clothes.
Hunky new kid in town Jim (James Carpinello) and the peppy, blond Judy (Shannon Burkett), by contrast, are kids sitting on the cusp of life’s sanctum sanctorum, the in-crowd. As Kimberly and Neechee breathlessly attempt to secure the friendship of the golden duo, who are pulled in the opposite direction by the siren song of the popular clique, the play becomes a battle both titanic and lilliputian for the souls of Jim and Judy. Russell and director Michael Mayer know it is both at once, and it’s the paradoxical combination of faux seriousness and faux sarcasm that gives the play its odd, entrancing appeal.
Russell’s tongue-in-cheek dialogue is heightened and grandiose one minute — “The rules of the game are fixed against me, and I can’t change the rules!” Judy melodramatically cries at one point — and crashes down to earth in the next: “You’re not some force of nature, Jim. You go to a suburban high school.” Some of its more sketch-comedy bits fall flat, but there’s always something dead-on-target around the corner, as these kids speak with the exaggerated bluntness that the minimal decorum of high school in truth managed to hide: “We’re more used to being liked,” says Judy, ready to give Kim the brushoff, since it’s what the in-crowd demands. Under Mayer’s lively and attentive direction, the superb actors navigate the instantaneous changes in tone expertly. They’re all tuned into the way teenagers feel like superheroes or martyrs in their own momentous little dramas, and act as such.
David Gallo’s stark white box of a set evokes that high-school feeling of living life under a microscope (when in fact no one’s really looking into it), and Kevin Adams’ lovely colored lights turn it into a carnival ride — the kind , appropriately, that makes you queasy after a while.
Inside the box, the kids pose and strut and flounce about theatrically as, in a miasma of junk food, the drama comes to its terrible climax. Kimberly and Neechee work up the courage to declare their forbidden same-sex love for Judy and Jim, even as the forces of darkness — that evil in-crowd — marshals its powers to lure them forever away.
Will Jim and Judy obey their instinctively rebellious hearts, or capitulate to the powerful pull of popularity? Anyone who’s been to high school knows the answer, but in a sweet, slightly pandering coda, Russell allows that life eventually redresses the cruel inequities of teenhood. But sadly, the author died of AIDS in 1994, which adds a somber, unspoken rebuttal to the play’s hopeful close.