Stupid Kids 

* Written by John C. Russell * Directed by Michael Mayer * Starring Shannon Burkett, James Carpinello, Keith Nobbs, and Mandy Siegfried * Century Theatre, New York City

John C. Russell’s Stupid Kids takes most of its plot and its atmosphere of overheated teen crisis directly from the 1955 movie classic Rebel Without a Cause. Jim Stark, the James Dean character (James Carpinello), is the surly new kid in town who has eyes for Judy, the Natalie Wood role (Shannon Burkett), whose boyfriend Buzz is BMOC at Joe McCarthy High. After the police raid a suburban rave, super-butch Jim finds himself sharing a cell in juvenile hall with nelly long-haired Neechee, akin to Sal Mineo’s Plato (Keith Nobbs). Meanwhile, Judy is locked up with multiply pierced Kimberly (the playwright’s original creation and virtually his alter ego, played by Mandy Siegfried), who’s so into Patti Smith that she’s renamed herself after the rock ‘n’ roll poet’s kid sister.

To get their love sanctioned, Jim and Judy have to submit to humiliating rituals posed by the unseen high-school hierarchy. But the playwright (who died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 31) has us view these tortured lovers through the eyes of Neechee and Kimberly, the queer kids who are so far removed from social acceptance that they’re off the radar. At first, they’re dazzled that Jim and Judy even talk to them. After following them around like puppies, serving as confidantes during every tremor of the budding romance, Neechee and Kim finally admit to each other that they’re in love with their idols. But even in their queer-kid longing, they’re forced to recognize that, far from rebelling, Jim and Judy are only too willing to be inducted into straight-teen conformity.

The show, first mounted at the not-for-profit WPA Theater in June and now running Off-Broadway backed by serious money (including ABC, Inc., the Shubert Organization, and movie producer Scott Rudin), is staged by Michael Mayer in a white backless box that serves as a sort of cartoon-panel frame. Which is fitting, since these high-schoolers express themselves with a campy Love-Comix fervor. “My tears are making the world shake!” cries Judy, collapsing to the girls’-room floor. But Russell’s script cuts the Hollywood camp with the anarchic temperament of Patti Smith, who’s clearly the presiding spirit of the play. Her music dominates the feisty art-rock that blasts through the play, and the kids’ truncated poetic language owes much to Cowboy Mouth, the wacky rock ‘n’ roll showdown Smith wrote and performed in 1971 with her then-lover, playwright Sam Shepard. But Mayer’s comic-book production flattens the contours of the play, sacrificing some of its subversive depth.

He does pull good performances out of the very young cast. Nobbs pretty much steals the show just by playing with his hair, though Siegfried is also quietly powerful, especially in the climactic scene. When the queer kids get up the nerve to confess their gay love, their declaration doesn’t even make a dent on Jim and Judy, caught up in their lust for social acceptance. Finally, Kimberly points out to Neechee, “They’re really average! They’re not exciting. They reek of America!” There’s something thrilling and liberating about watching a play that says to the mindless conformist lurking inside all of us, “I’m offering you a serious alternative to slavery -- will you think about it?”

The Advocate, October 13, 1998

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