Gregory S. Moss’ “punkplay” captures the relationship between two friends, Duck and Mickey, over a year in the 1980s. It is a true coming-of-age story about influential music and phases, the persistence of conformity even in the name of defiance and the process of growing up and growing apart from the people and things you once loved. Matt Bretz and Lisa Sanaye Dring’s co-directed production at Circle X Theatre Co. brings out the best and worst in the relationship between these two boys, but the ancillary characters and pacing outside of the main two characters tend to drag.
Mickey (Zackary Stone Gearing) and Duck (Dempsey Bryk) play the perfect teenagers. Their vocal affectations, while slightly Californian for what seemed to be either the east coast or midwest, felt perfectly in period and in style with the show. You could feel the friendship, verging on kinship, between the two boys and the comfort level that can only come from prolonged closeness. This made any of the cuts to the other hurt much more. Matthew Dunlop and Sadie Kuwano played a variety of different roles in the production and they varied in effectiveness. Inés and Marcel are two punks from Montreal that crash with Mickey and Duck. They have rather indiscernible and distracting accents and the air between their lines lingers for far too long. It was a shame since Kuwano makes some fun choices as Inés and the dialogue is intriguing.
Sue is the best character of the ancillary bunch. Kuwano is a delightful addition as she recounts an uncomfortably funny and deep monologue about seducing truck drivers away from their jobs as a way to destroy capitalism. She kisses both of the boys with simultaneous confidence and awkwardness. And while Chris Sawtelle may have been a little too apathetic at the start, his outburst about the death of punk and his jabs at Mickey’s appearance and demeanor hit hard, rattling the theater.
The show bounces between reality and fantasy, with some shouting matches of bad punk band names in between. One fantastical scene involves puppetified furniture and a sexy Ronald Regan. The scene is extremely well written and funny, but there were times where it felt the pace was lagging and that the actors could have committed more to the absurd and whimsical tone of the scene. But most of the scenes have the natural and authentic paces of teenage life, capturing the rebellion and the banality of it all.
In typical Moss style, time throughout the play feels less strict and more condensed; scenes are interspersed with flashes of the passage of time and it feels as though the audience is experiencing the impression of an era, of a relationship, of a bedroom. It also focuses on young protagonists, awkwardly and clumsily roller-skating around the bedroom trying to put their feelings into words, punk music and their bodies and only partially succeeding. Moss has a knack for balancing comedy and heart set to a naturalistic dialogue that feels straight from the halls of a high school. Yet these characters are able to go past their stereotypes and bring out moments of depth in even seemingly shallow moments or teenage tropes.
One of the most memorable moments was the fight between Mickey and Duck at the end. The two start wrestling to punk music, or at least attempting to on their roller skates. They stop to look at each other and all is still. The anger softens, as slow dance music plays and a disco ball descends. There is a hesitance, of wondering if these boys will fight or kiss, as they pull the other into an embrace. In the purple light and the glow of a descended disco ball, they kiss tenderly before pulling away and immediately returning to the fight we saw before. This fantastical pause manages to show the way these boys are showing their intimacy and love for each other; through fighting each other.
Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set is delightfully droll to start. The set is a stage of its own, covered in white paper that is torn away as the play progresses. What begins as a generic, literal white box of a room complete with labeled props that lack branding or color, is embellished over the course of the play with smashed records, posters, cough syrup bottles, a stuffed lamb. On both sides of the bedroom, punk rock alcoves with exposed pipes and stickered walls where the boys make music. The chaos returns to generic stasis by the end of the play, but the punk rock alcoves remain as hollow reminders.
Heather Carson’s lighting design and Dustin Hughes’ video design made the production a visual feast. Between the exposed lighting instruments, concert-like footlights and the colorful led borders, the show felt like a mix between a concert and modern art. The projected videos against the set helped evoke the nostalgia of the era without distracting.
While this play may be about growing up and change, it is not only meant for a teenage audience. Moss is deft at writing coming-of-age plays for people who are already of age, inviting them to rediscover things about themselves by looking back.
“It’s the end of an era,” the voice on the mysterious record says at the end of the play. “It’s morning in America and the world did not end.” We see Mickey exit the stage, finally walking and free from his roller skates and fears, welcomed into a bright light. And that sensation of leaving behind your past and entering a new era of life is something that resonates with people of any age.
“There are no f--king rules,” echoes the mysterious voice. “You need to eat, drink water and sleep every now and again. Everything else is negotiable.”
“punkplay” runs now through Dec. 21 at Atwater Village. Tickets start at $25 and more information can be found here.