Leave It to Beavis
Ah, the troubled young--how to deal with them in the theater? This past year we had the intense and frightening Saved, by British playwright Edward Bond, which indicted English society for its cruel, callous working-class teens. Then we had Eric Bogosian's intelligent take on American youth in subUrbia. Both these plays freely used the language of the streets to delve into mindless violence and the blight of empty lives, and they made some of the very best theater in Denver this year.
Youth in Revolt, now in an energetic production at Chicken Lips Comedy Theatre, satirizes the lousy state of America's parents and the perilous condition of its adolescents with all the wit of a sledgehammer--effective, but never subtle. If it didn't feel quite so exploitive, it might mean a little more, but as it is, the sophomoric humor here is its own reward. That's what you go for, that's what you get.
To be fair, there are those who feel Beavis and Butt-head do tell us something about the culture, and early on, director Nicholas Sugar (who did such a splendid job with subUrbia at Theatre on Broadway) actually plays the audience a tape loop of the idiot cartoon teens' mirthless laughter. It is meant to remind us what our bright young antagonist is up against.
Based on a novel by C.D. Payne and adapted to the stage by Monica Taylor, the story concerns a fourteen-year-old kid named Nick who has a bimbo for a mother and a BMW-driving drunk for a father. Both parents freely indulge themselves in sex and booze, then balk when young Nick gazes at girlie magazines or risks everything for the love of Sheeni, a manipulative nymphet who lures Nick to rebellious deeds with promises of sex.
In Taylor's script, Nick simply has nothing to think about but his own budding libido. There are more penis jokes in this one play than a viewer might hear in a lifetime of movie viewing. Nick has only one friend, Lefty, who shares the same fixations, and the two dudes are the best thing about the story. The women, though, are all despicable. Again.
While Nick and Lefty plan their sexual futures, Mom does it noisily in the next room with a scuzzball named Jerry. Dad (played by the same actor, Doug Rosen) picks up a nineteen-year-old hairdresser with the IQ of an earthworm and takes long, raucous "naps" with her when Nick visits--as much to show Nick who's boss as to enjoy himself.
When Jerry sells a dying Chevy to a sailor, he has to beat it out of town and takes Mom and Nick with him to a camp in the mountains. The religiously run camp offers only one solace--Sheeni--and Nick experiments with the female form for the first time. The rest of the play is all about Nick's antisocial antics, designed to make his mother send him to live with his father, who's taken a job in Ukiah, California. Poor Nick. Ukiah is not what he'd dared to dream.
The role of Nick is played with boyish glee by a grownup, Josh Hartwell, who's worthy of better material but brings whatever joy there is to the show. He can talk a mile a minute and make sense, he can leap tall tales with a single bound, and he makes the most puerile material somehow sound naive. Brian Harper is a terrific match as Lefty--all hey-dude cuteness--while Johnette Toye gives Sheeni a nasty verity.
Though Lisa Whiteside has a few moments of genuine comic fun as Mom, she resorts to an annoying physical shtick to get laughs. Doug Rosen likewise exaggerates the physical so much that it quickly grows tiresome. We know this is supposed to be a cartoon, but two-dimensional characters are useful only in small doses. All the characters Gene Gillette and Anita Boland play--from the irate sailor to the ditzy hairdresser--work better for just that reason; they vary the physical comedy and restrain the repetition.
What Payne and Taylor end up with is a parody whose view of the teenage condition is ultimately no deeper than Beavis and Butt-head's. The neglect and hypocrisy of middle-class parents toward their offspring may be as pervasive as this play implies. But don't bet the BMW on it.
Youth in Revolt, through August 30 at Chicken Lips Comedy Theatre, 1360 17th Street, 534-4440.
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