* Written by Rob Urbinati * Directed by Scott Elliott * Starring: Stephanie Gatschet, Heather Gottlieb, Brooke Sunny Moriber, amy Whitehouse, Margaret Burkwit, Chloe Sevigny * The New Group at Intermediate School 70, New York City

Call Scott Elliott the King of the Ugly Truths. Plunk this guy down in any landscape and he’ll overturn the one rock with the scariest creepy-crawlers under it. This 35-year-old director burst onto the scene a couple of years ago with a brilliant production of Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy, which pictured the chaotic boredom of five working-class British hets. He scandalized Broadway last season by giving the characters in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter real sexuality: the male fan stalking a matinee idol doffed his raincoat to embrace the star butt-naked. For his company The New Group, Elliott has produced one grim, hilarious gem after another: Curtains, in which a worn-out woman smothers her invalid mother with a pillow; Leigh’s Goose-Pimples, in which four drunken Londoners mercilessly taunt a fat clueless Arab who thinks he’s been brought to a brothel; and This Is Our Youth, a portrait of Gen-X slackers with too much time, money, and drugs on their hands.

Now Elliott takes us to Southern Indiana with Rob Urbinati’s first play, Hazelwood Jr. High. Twelve-year-old Shanda is the new kid in town. Liberated from parochial school, she’s eager to make a good impression on the tough girls at “Hazel Hood.” The first day she gets jumped by a butch dyke named Amanda, and they both get sent to in-school suspension. To Shanda’s surprise, Amanda starts passing her notes wanting to be friends. Next thing you know, they’re going to dances, kissing in cemeteries, and having sex every chance they get. The trouble is, Amanda’s already got a girlfriend, Melinda Loveless, and she’s big trouble. Insanely jealous, Melinda joins forces with a devil-worshipping dropout named Laurie Tackett (“Is it true she drinks her own blood?” “Yeah, but she has her own car”) to teach Shanda a lesson. They lure her to a deserted cabin, torture her for hours, throw her in the car trunk, and when she doesn’t die, they set her on fire by the side of the road -- and then head for a midnight snack at McDonald’s.

As the sweetness of teen-girl tribadism gives way to affectless violence right out of Quentin Tarantino, the audience gets progressively sickened and outraged. The play seems to be capitalizing on the same tired killer-dyke fantasy Hollywood has spun out, from Windows to Basic Instinct. The kicker here is: this [ISN’T JUST ANOTHER LURID MALE FANTASY ABOUT MURDEROUS MUFF-DIVERS -- IT’S] a true story. The playwright compiled the story and dialogue from court transcripts and documentary evidence. You can read all about it in true-crime reporter Aphrodite Jones’s latest pulp-nonfiction shocker, Cruel Sacrifice (Pinnacle Books).

As a play, Hazelwood is no literary masterpiece. Urbinati efficiently speeds us through the gruesome downward spiral of the story, without attempting to provide a moral compass or outside perspective, so the characters remain somewhat flat, soulless mysteries. Fortunately, Elliott performs his usual alchemy, pulling out all the stops to make theatrical, even entertaining, material that you’d otherwise want to shove in a corner and forget. The director has staged the show in the auditorium of an actual Manhattan junior high, pumped it full of ironically insipid teen-girl pop from 1991 (Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Mariah Carey, Paula Abdul), and coaxed astonishing performances from a cast that includes two actual high school students and (as Goth-garbed Tackett) Chloe Sevigny, the star of Larry Clark’s film Kids. Most challenging is Elliott’s take on this rarely-spied piece of gay life. Rather than settle for Hollywood cliches and gay-pride sloganeering, he forces us to consider the messier realities of gender rebellion and the brutal consequences for both gay and straight kids of a culture that doesn’t feed them anything but junk.

The Advocate, April 14, 1998

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