One the most exhilarating scenes in “Manhattan Murder Mystery” sees Woody Allen’s friends hanging upon Anjelica Huston’s lips as she straight-talks her way through a complex account of how a murder was committed. Imagine that scenario reversed: a chilly teenager unblinklingly instructing dumbstruck friends precisely how to lie and plant false clues to cover up the murder they have committed. That’s the magnetic, pivotal scene from Dennis Kelly’s audacious “DNA.” The other two works in the National Theater’s triple-bill of young people’s plays are less ambitious but more than fit for the purpose.
Given that the plays were originally commissioned by the National to be performed in schools and youth theaters up and down the country, it’s no surprise that all three works view the world through the perspective of teenagers. Even in these professional premieres directed by Paul Miller, adults are few and far between.
Kelly’s “DNA” banishes adults altogether. Authority figures — police, teachers, parents — exist offstage solely as people to be controlled, circumvented and deceived.
“Are we going to get in trouble?” asks Jan (Claire Foy). Not if they follow their plan.
A bout of bullying got out of hand, and Adam (Ryan Sampson) was hit with stones and plunged to his death. The loosely aligned friends seek help from bright but nerdy Phil (intense, creepily cool Sam Crane), who fixes the cover-up in a wholly arresting speech that reaches comic heights of quick-witted invention.
Everything is water-tight until an improvisation on the plan sees an innocent man arrested with DNA used to nail him.
Kelly’s control of his worst-case scenario and terrified characters is masterly, matched by his equally exciting handling of language. There’s a lethal comic absurdity to his bald, repetitive dialogue. Yet every line is fired by fiercely controlled subtext. Nowhere is this clearer than in the numerous lengthy monologues handled by 19-year-old Ruby Bentall as Phil’s earnestly talkative, forever-questioning pal Lea.
Bentall unshowily delineates every single idea and separate change of thought with breathtaking maturity. Even in a strong cast of actors — some as young as 14 — she’s the standout.
Bentall is no less fine as humdrum Ron — short for Veronica — who suddenly acquires mysterious healing powers in “The Miracle.” Lin Coghlan’s play echoes “Under Milk Wood” with its interleaved tale of uneasy happenings in an ordinary small town marshaled by its narrator, in this instance Ron’s friend Zelda (perky Rowena Cooper).
Through successive brief scenes, Ron’s innocent prognostications are seen to have striking effects upon the town’s inhabitants. But it’s not long before Ron’s gift is met with opposition by the powers-that-be — teachers, again. Once word gets out, the adults grow increasingly unhappy and the stakes begin to climb.
Coghlan’s direct-address storytelling trots along neatly with snippety scenes effectively sketching contrasting attitudes from a wealth of characters (played here by an 18-strong cast). But as bigger issues surface, like the pain of a local boy returning after serving in Iraq, the scenes begin to feel underwritten, verging on the sentimental. Cumulatively, however, the story’s quirkiness and its ultimate optimism are undeniably attractive.
There’s a similar warmth around the edges of Roy Williams’ “Baby Girl,” despite the fact that it charts a teenage pregnancy. Torn between being old before her time and dangerously naive, Kelle (Candassaie Liburd) finds herself pregnant at 13, following in the footsteps of her mother (Petra Letang) at the same age.
Williams methodically works through Kelle’s options as a young black girl living in cheap city housing. Scenes with alternately dismissive and supportive friends — and the confusion of the equally young and even more naive father — all carefully fill out the expected range of attitudes.
Well-observed performances in Miller’s even-handed if flatly designed production ensure that even though Williams’ truth-telling dialogue is akin to TV soap writing, the clear-eyed examination of a theatrically neglected world rings true.
Yet beyond the social agenda of its initial idea, Williams’ dialogue-heavy “Baby Girl” lacks theatrical punch. Appropriately enough, Kelly finds more dramatic DNA in the perfectly crafted silences between his fascinatingly imagined characters, whose teenage peril resonates chillingly into the minds of adult audiences.