The rich kids are not all right in this unsettling portrait of a carousing British boys' club.
"Boys will be boys" doesn't come close to describing the behavior of the members of the Riot Club, an exclusive society of over-privileged and ultra-debauched Oxford students in Laura Wade's 2010 play. The bulk of the action takes place on the evening of the club's once-a-term formal dinner, when the ten members gather in white tie and tails to eat heartily, drink their faces off and trash their rented venue.
The boys in this band are uniformly upper-crust, and mostly descendants of the centuries-old, powerful families of the English nobility. That one boy's heritage as the child of obscenely wealthy Greek immigrants renders him the object of merciless, increasingly cruel teasing speaks to the levels of class consciousness at play here. As the boys work themselves into a lather of privilege oneupsmanship, their contempt for those of lesser means is laid bare; every time the proprietor of the pub or his young daughter enters the room to serve a course or clear plates, the sense of danger rises.
Yet I'm not sure American audiences can thoroughly appreciate what Wade is exploring (loosely inspired by Oxford's real-life Bullingdon Club, which has counted politicians David Cameron and Boris Johnson among its members). Can those of us raised on bootstraps narratives and the American Dream fully comprehend the deep-seated, age-old class striations of English society, let alone tossed-off references to Blackbird Leys and Eton mess? And a semi-supernatural element Wade crams into the second act undercuts our investment in the young men's repellent sense of superiority.
Still, this collection of cads is somehow as charming as it is repugnant. That's partly due to sharp character writing on Wade's part, and partly to the killer collection of young actors in Jonathan Berry's taut production, many of whom were new to me. They may be playing a bunch of horrid louts, but there's little doubt you'll want to see more from this cast.
Steep Theatre Company. By Laura Wade. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With Will Kinnear, Sean Wiberg, Alex Gillmor, Eric Staves, Michael Kurowski, Christopher Borek, Dash Barber, Michael Holding, Colin Sphar, David Seeber, Matthew Garry, Ryan Hallahan, Japhet Balaban, Bryce Gangel, Kendra Thulin. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.