In 1988, the movie Heathers – a tale about how a couple of misfit high school students take their revenge on the in-crowd by killing them – was billed as a black comedy. The events at Columbine High School 11 years later made that film considerably less funny. And since Columbine, the number of mass shootings, be they on an Army Post, at a movie theater, or in a grade school, has grown alarmingly.
Inevitably, the question asked after each such tragedy is “How did this happen?”
Making an encore appearance at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Theatre Unleashed’s Friends Like These attempts to provide one such answer to the question. We know where our journey will end right from the beginning: the play opens with dramatic news reports of a high school shooting. With the ending revealed, writer Gregory Crafts can focus us, instead, on the events that lead to the final tragedy.
The story revolves around 5 teens: troubled, trenchcoat-wearing Garrett (Scott Sharma); angry cutter Diz (Sammi Lappin); well-adjusted wrestler Bryan (Sean Casey Flanagan); perky there’s-more-to-me-than-cheerleader Nicole (Parissa Koo), and menacing football player Jesse (Lee Pollero). While Nicole and Jesse are narrow in dimension, the core members of the outcast squad, Garrett and Diz, are rich in characterization. Together with clique-hopping Bryan, they form an interesting triangle who have built a camaraderie around their monthly live-action role-playing (LARP) weekends. Think of these excursions as Dungeons and Dragons meets battle reenactments.
The strength of Friends Like These is Crafts’ ability to capture both the pace and awkwardness of high school. Dialogue snaps with snarky rejoinders peppered by the sort of classroom factoids that supposedly constitute an education. Now and again, insert an f-word (“fuck” or “faggot” – your choice). Rinse. Repeat. There’s something authentic about it all.
There’s something authentic, too, about the world of the teenagers. Parents are non-existent. The make-believe LARP characters are a safe alternative to the real-life personae the teens feel forced to wear. Hormones get carbonated only to fizzle in a pool of disorientation and heartache. While Friends Like These purports to be about school shootings, there are no Chekhovian guns here. Instead, cliques and pecking orders and desires to be loved are presented as the real hidden triggers for catastrophe.
Lappin shines as the angst-ridden Diz. Her performance straddles the razor’s edge of devastated little girl and furiously confused teenager and her twisted outbursts come from real places of torment. As the closest thing to an adult voice in the play, Flanagan’s Bryan is both sincere and reasonable. Except for the dictates of the story, however, it’s never entirely believable why Koo’s Nicole is interested in Sharma’s Garrett who is neither dark enough nor brooding enough for his black duster. And the show’s intimidating bully, Jesse, requires a physically beefier actor though Pollero tries hard to make something of what is essentially a stereotyped role.
Writer Crafts and director Wendy Gough Soroka cleverly stress “how” the tragedy occurs choosing to avoid the more elusive “why.” Nevertheless, while the central issues addressed by Friends Like These remain disturbingly current, the play itself is beginning to show its age. A joke involving Thora Birch, though funny, hints at when the script was written. The play is also set in a pre-digital high school. Smartphones, ubiquitous on any campus today, are totally absent. There is also no mention of social media – which has become quite an effective tool for 21st century bullying – or YouTube – which has become the preferred place for broadcasting emotions. And, sadly, today’s students are more keenly aware of the possibility of a school shooting with lockdown drills as familiar as fire drills. Far from keeping journals private, distraught people now use Facebook to publicly delineate grievances providing ample opportunity for friends and acquaintances to nervously agonize whether a threat is serious or not. Given present trends, it is an unsettling thought that Crafts will likely need to revise and update Friends Like These for years to come.
Friends Like These plays at Theatre Asylum during the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival. More information at http://hff14.org/1594
Other 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival reviews:
Originally published June 19, 2014 in Bitter Lemons.