There will never be a shortage of plays that explore the dangerous rush of teenage rebellion, but there should always be room for those like “The Stones,” an Australian import that injects its take on adolescence with engrossing theatrical imagination. Admittedly, the story of a teen prank gone fatally awry is a little shopworn, particularly given the plague of school shootings that has spread since this piece made its Aussie debut in 1996. But Stefo Nantsou and Tom Lycos — the show’s writer-director-performers — overcome that familiarity with moments so raw and strange that they feel brand new.
One thing these adults have mastered is making the teenage boys they portray seem like genuine kids. Neither young man is given a name, which only emphasizes the universality of their behavior. When we first meet the boys — a 15-year-old thug played by Nantsou and his 13-year-old idolater played by Lycos — they’re breaking into a car garage to … well, they’re not really sure. Amid all their cursing and goading, they never quite discuss their goals, and when the younger boy finally breaks in and sees the precious cars, he seems perplexed about what to do next.
The script gracefully handles this confusion, and Lycos’ delicate perf displays how young people can be hurled forward by impulses they barely comprehend. His work remains sympathetic, particularly as the boys keep prodding each other into escalating mischief that culminates with a stone getting hurled off an overpass, killing a motorist. Face equally shaded by terror and exhilaration, Lycos creates a teen forced to discover a lifetime of feeling in just a few moments.
That dense emotion elevates “The Stones” above a simplistic morality play. Nantsou and Lycos refuse to reduce the kids to easy symbols for innocence lost or the fruits of a violent society. Instead, the production keeps the boys likable, thwarting an easy judgment on their actions.
One moment especially crystallizes the play’s approach. Having been arrested for manslaughter, the younger boy tells a policeman (also Nantsou, who becomes a cop when he unzips his windbreaker to reveal a tie) about his recurring nightmare. What we see is a visceral masterstroke: Lycos lifts an onstage ladder, the show’s only set piece, and stands it precariously on a sawhorse where it’s been resting. In the dream, he says, he’s climbing the ladder while his friend keeps threatening to let it go.
And that’s what we see. A man climbs impossibly high while another barely holds his ladder steady. It’s a terrifying, dangerous stunt, and it makes a perfect metaphor for the boys’ fates. This, the production insists, is what it feels like to cross the divide between growing and grown.
The play’s conclusion never quite recaptures the shattering power of that image, since the script narrows its focus to the philosophical arguments of the boys’ trial. These summative moments are dominated by adults — Lycos also plays a cop — and the grownups’ assertions (“What if that were your son on trial?,” “What if that were your spouse that had been killed?”) feel smaller than the scope created by the kids’ breathless lives.
But it’s a happy predicament that Nantsou and Lycos have created characters too vivid to be contained by the parameters of a single debate. These boys may be specifically embroiled in a crisis about accidental death and falling stones, but they’re also inviting reflection on the massive, tangled mess that’s formed when maturity tracks us down.