Ominously, the poster for the current stage adaptation of “Rebel Without a Cause” bears the subtitle “1955-2005.” This might reference the 50 years since James Dean’s breakout role in the iconic Nicholas Ray movie set the standard for teen angst, but it also reads like the dates on a tombstone. True enough, the quickest way to evoke this stunningly misguided piece of work is with a single word: deadly.
Press materials trumpet that producing company Barely Balancing Artists Group was “established specifically to bring this classic to the New York stage.” The inexperience shows. Many of the culprits are fresh out of undergrad, but even the patience afforded to young go-getters is exhausted when actors trip over lines, offstage body parts poke from the wings and the upstage curtain pops open to expose costume changes.
Of course, the distractions do provide relief from the play, which never suggests that turning this movie into theater was a good idea.
Take the script. Playwright James Fuller — who, Smithee-like, doesn’t have a bio in the program — has essentially copied Stewart Stern’s screenplay note for note, yet he’s somehow doused its emotional sparks. We still get the story of Jim Stark (Joshua Coleman), a 1950s teenage misfit who battles self-loathing by fighting every greaser in his high school. But the plot settles for vague archetypes. All that’s certain is Jim is angry, best friend Plato (Allie Mulholland) is unstable and heartthrob Judy (Erin Cunningham) is insecure.
A movie, especially one anchored by Dean and Natalie Wood, can charge past such flimsiness with cinematic style. In the intimacy of theater, however, the onus falls on the playwright to keep the writing engagingly complex.
That, of course, would mean altering the original, but one senses the company regards the film as a holy relic. Perhaps this explains why co-directors Coleman and Brian Stites refrain from displaying any theatrical imagination: They don’t want artistic interpretation to mar the film’s legacy. So scene after scene, they just allow their actors to shamble around, never accounting for pace, timing or tension.
There’s a clock on the wall in police station scenes, and those who study it will note that two stultifying seconds pass between every line of dialogue. The incessant scene changes run at least three times as long.
Those scene changes might be the biggest blunder of all. Considering the production has no budget, there might have been some concession to the fact that felt-covered flats and folding chairs do not approximate cinema verite. But the show trudges on, aiming for realism it cannot create. Never mind that the theater actually thrives on the less-is-more aesthetic or that subtraction of the cheap set pieces might have given the production some visual coherence. The (uncredited) design insists on highlighting its own limitations.
Same is true of the acting. Try as they might, Coleman and Mulholland cannot approach Dean and Sal Mineo, nor are they capable of reinventing their roles. Of the rest, only Cunningham and Peter Bongiorno (as Ray, the benevolent police officer) show any glimmer of craft. Otherwise, it’s just hamming and flailing as the ensemble offers one more reason to have stayed at home with a DVD of some old movie.