Though there’s music only during scene changes, Punk Rock is a fine title for Simon Stephens’s 2009 drama, which the author says was inspired by the 1999 Columbine shootings. No other pop form captures teenage nihilism quite as effectively as punk does. And it’s this quality, driven to its most terrifying extreme, that lifts Stephens’s play above the standard high-school-is-hell narrative.
In the first couple of scenes, we’re in extremely familiar territory. Set in the library of a school in suburban England, the play provides all the elements you’d expect: ties and blazers, a rigid social hierarchy, misfits who can’t wait to graduate and get out, a homophobic bully who’s—surprise!—secretly gay. As the story goes along, however, Stephens pushes it in an intriguing direction. The kids on the bottom of the totem pole don’t thirst for revenge or redemption (as in, say, Carrie and Glee, respectively) but annihilation. The most picked-on kid of all, Chadwick (a feverish Ryan Heindl), takes comfort in the Large Hadron Collider and what he sees as the imminent extinction of the human species.
Even more frightening, though, is the central character, William, an initially harmless-seeming presence whose ordinary adolescent disgust with the prevailing order gets mixed up in his disordered mind with delusions of grandeur, resulting in a horrifying outburst of violence. As played by the alternately vulnerable and chilling Joey deBettencourt, William combines in one volatile package both Holden Caulfield and all the confused, gun-toting, angry young men who’ve cited Holden Caulfield as an influence.