The troupe’s well-casted ensemble of local actors revisits a time when the phrase ‘teen dynamics’ referred to something other than volume controls on an iPod
Last weekend I saw Man of Steel at the new IMAX Theater at Destiny USA. My husband, who generally uses audio-enhancing earphones at the cinema, didn’t need them because the volume was so ear-splittingly loud. I don’t have hearing problems, but after that show I suspect I might have suffered some. The surround-sound speakers were cranked up so high I could physically feel the reverberations of the crashes and explosions.
The Superman remake has so much unrelenting, careening destruction to poor Metropolis that some family members and I were joking that the sequel would have to be named Man of Steel II: Insurance Companies Strike Back.
This weekend, we also saw another remake. It didn’t have any special effects, ear-damaging audio or preternaturally strong aliens from a doomed planet fighting it out on earth. However, it did have superheroes: five excellent local actors portraying people at their most vulnerable: teenagers facing the challenges and vicissitudes of grappling with life.
The Central New York Playhouse has mounted a theatrical version of John Hughes’s famed 1985 film, The Breakfast Club. It’s a brilliant idea and it would be interesting to find out how Dan Rowlands, the adapter and director of the play (and producing director of the Playhouse), went about securing the rights and approval for this enterprise. The Breakfast Club isn’t your average teen flick — it’s the lodestar for an entire generation and the epitome of cinematic storytelling for young adults. It’s not for nuthin’ that the obituaries for Hughes, who died suddenly of a heart attack at age 59 in 2009, had such headlines as “Remembering John Hughes, Bard of the American High School.”
On the day of Hughes’s death, Vanity Fair Hollywood columnist Michael Hogan wrote, “For Americans occupying a certain generational span — everyone from tail-end boomers to front-end Y’s with older siblings — there was no greater guide to the forbidding landscape of adolescence than the films of John Hughes.” In March 2010, that magazine also ran an elegiac feature story, noting, “It was remarkable enough that a baby-boomer born squarely in the middle of the 20th century had somehow laid claim to the title of Teen Laureate of the 1980s; more remarkable still was that his movies turned out to be a renewable resource, with a reach far beyond the generation for which they were originally intended.”
And why should this story have so much reach and depth? At first glance, the plot is deceptively simple, even one-dimensional. Five students have been sentenced to an all-day detention in their high school’s library for various misdeeds, some of which are not explained until further on in the telling. That the roles are archetypes of teenage identities also might seem rather cardboardy. As the character Brian Johnson (Justin Polly) says at the play’s onset, they are “the Brain, the Athlete, the Princess, the Basket Case and the Criminal.”
The strength of Hughes’s story and this adaptation, along with the capable acting in this production, makes The Breakfast Club transcend these all-too-familiar and overdone characterizations. Polly is joined by Jordan Glaski as John Bender, the Criminal; Kim Panek as Claire Standish, the Princess; Kasey McHale as Allison Reynolds, the Basket Case; and Joel Miscione as Andrew Clark, the Athlete. In the film version, these characters were played by Brat Pack members Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Emilio Estevez, respectively.
Although the play’s cast is almost uniformly excellent, Polly and Glaski deserve special plaudits. Brian truly is a brain. He (no surprise) excels in math and science and is a member of both the math and physics club. The guileless way Polly announces this and the way he readily provides incidental factual information shows how essentially unschooled Brian is in teen social interaction. I don’t remember thinking so at the time I first saw the film, but the phrase “on the Asperger’s spectrum” definitely comes to mind. Polly sensitively portrays this character, who also ends up being the most incisive in his honesty about the detention group’s dynamic.
Glaski, on the other hand, is anything but sensitive as the rebellious, wounded Bender. He is trouble with a capital “T” and all too willing to follow the predictions made for him early on in his life. When you’ve been told repeatedly that you are a “stupid, worthless, no good, God damned, freeloading, son of a bitch, retarded, bigmouth, know it all, asshole, jerk” and “ugly, lazy and disrespectful,” could any young person expect to end up any differently? Glaski, who has an uncanny resemblance to Judd Nelson, reveals the range of this character from his scary outbursts to his neediness just under the surface.
Panek as Claire is facing her own issues. She’s popular, but that comes with its own baggage — the expectations of the in-crowd and the cost that entails as a well-rounded, humane person. On top of that, her whole life is not that of Ozzie and Harriet. Fundamentally, despite her success with the high school clique, she feels bounced back and forth at home with her warring parents. “It’s like they use me just to get back at each other,” she tells her fellow detainees.
Quiet for much of the beginning of the play is the Gothic crazy girl, Allison, garbed in black with eyes shaded in heavy dark makeup — all the more for her to make herself invisible. Ironically, that’s exactly the way she feels at home. Her parents don’t affirm her worth and in fact don’t seem to recognize her existence at all. Allison reveals the most surprising reason for her Saturday in the school library as the students began to open up more and more to each other. Since this role is so much of the cipher, it is difficult. McHale rises to this with adeptness, inviting empathy.
Miscione hits the right notes in terms of his performance and looks like an athlete, albeit more of a football player in physique than the stated champion wrestler. Because he seems far too old to play this teenage role, he is the least believable in terms of casting. In addition, when he takes off his team jacket, Miscione reveals heavily tattooed biceps not in keeping with a potential All-American high school sports star.
Rounding out the group is the cynical, beleaguered teacher who monitors the detention hall (none too effectively), and the custodian who shows that sometimes the people in the most menial jobs within an institution are the ones who have the greatest awareness of what is going on. David Vickers as the teacher and Sean Pratt as the janitor complement the ongoing drama developing among the students in the library.
As the allotted time period for their punishment begins to wind to a close, Brian asks the most prescient and compelling question: “What happens to us on Monday? When we’re all together again? I mean I consider you guys my friends, I’m not wrong, am I? So, so on Monday… what happens?”
This is the crux of the story of The Breakfast Club: maneuvering the shoals of the high school
environment with its seemingly-ordained stratification of groups, painful perceptions of popularity, and manifestations of social acceptance. Yes, the young people engage in genuine communication and reach out across the divide to others, whom they originally think they couldn’t relate to at all. But will they have the moral courage to do this publicly in school on Monday?
Pondering this question and the long-term effects of the day in the library on these five characters makes for profound opportunities for discussing not just the realm of high school, but human nature as a whole. This is why Hughes’ classic motion picture, well told here in this live performance, sticks with you longer than most of the other popcorn-action and Sci-Fi movie hits.
The Central New York Playhouse’s The Breakfast Club is more eye-opening than eye-popping. It’s full of sensitive revelations, not sensory reverberations. In short, it shows just how much of a “person of steel” a teenager needs to be to traverse the most dangerous of obstacles: rising above others’ stereotypes to finally find yourself.
What: The Breakfast Club, adapted for the stage and directed by Dan Rowlands
Who: The Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, 3649 Erie Blvd East, Dewitt
Date of review: June 22, 2013
Remaining performances: Plays through June 29
Length: Two hours, with one intermission
Tickets: $15 and $20. Call 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com/
Family guide: Characters smoke pot and use the f-word