Victory Gardens Theater

I no longer have access to the world of adolescents. I’m too old. I look like a grown-up, I dress like a grown-up, I suppose I act like a grown-up, and so teenagers treat me like a grown-up, which means they’re very careful about what they say around me. I can’t blame them. When I was 15, adults were unpredictable creatures full of arrogance and criticism; I never let my guard down around them. And now I’m one of them.

The teen world of Kids in the Dark is different from what I remember, primarily because of the widespread availability of drugs and sex. But the play also implies that one aspect of adolescence hasn’t changed a bit, and that’s the mutual loyalty that provides teenagers with the affirmation and support they can’t always get from adults.

Kids in the Dark is based on a sensational murder in Northport, Long Island. Actually, it was an unremarkable murder. A teenager who was high on angel dust, a drug notorious for inducing violent behavior, murdered one of his friends. What made the case sensational is that even though the killer bragged about his crime, and took people into the woods to view the decomposing body, none of the kids informed any adults for two weeks. Finally, a girl placed an anonymous call to the police, but, as she explains in the play, she did so to get help for the killer, who was a friend, not to avenge the victim.

David Breskin wrote an article about the case for Rolling Stone, and he wrote it completely from the viewpoint of the teenagers involved. Since he was only 25 at the time, and looked like a teenager himself, he managed to get these kids to confide in him, and he built his article almost exclusively out of verbatim quotations.

Chicago playwright Rick Cleveland read the article and was struck by the power of these simple, inelegant monologues. He contacted Breskin and proposed adapting the article for the stage, and the two began their collaboration.

But Kids in the Dark is much more than a transcript. Some of the monologues, including those that described the murder, have been transformed into scenes. An audiotape recorded by several of the boys one night while they were stoned is acted out in the play, providing a funny and touching scene. And Cleveland, who grew up in an Ohio suburb not so very long ago, has shaped the material to accentuate the loneliness, the apprehension, and the tribal loyalty that adolescents experience.

The result is remarkably potent drama. The play never dwells on the sordid details of the murder, and it never preaches about what’s wrong with kids today. Yet, the horror of the crime is breathtaking, and the source of the kids’ shocking behavior is perfectly apparent — it’s caused by the adults all around them.

The adults are full of hypocrisy and contradiction. One teenage boy in the play steals some marijuana from the stash his mother keeps under the microwave. A father who’s fed up with his son’s hostility goes into a rage and throws the kid out of the house, ordering him never to contact the family again. (This is the boy who commits the murder.) And when the cops — symbols of justice — haul a witness in for questioning, they kick the boy in the crotch and beat him up.

Although adults never appear in this play (with the exception of a condescending psychologist armed with a tape recorder), this play is, to a large extent, about adults. The kids are just mirrors showing us grotesque reflections of the adults who lurk in the shadows around them. The title is apt — these kids are lost. They can’t figure out where they are or where they’re going, but the adults who pretend to guide them are actually leading them astray.

The world premiere of this play at Victory Gardens gains added force from the outstanding work of the youthful cast. These are all novice actors, and director Dennis Zacek certainly has shaped their performances extensively, but the ensemble acting is so strong and authentic that it’s hard to believe a director was involved at all. These young people seem to be good friends, perfectly relaxed and natural with each other, but they also reveal the uncertainty and the ignorance that make adolescence such a nightmare.

Andrew White, who plays Ronny, the killer, is unmistakably tough and independent. Thrown out of his house, he lives in the woods, crashing occasionally at the home of a friend. But he’s still just a kid. He still craves approval and affection from the parents he has alienated, and looks hurt when a friend makes fun of him.

Robert Bundy embodies adolescence itself in Albert, who witnesses the murder. Albert is awkward, self-conscious, and slightly ingratiating — a personality still under construction. But Bundy also artfully allows intelligence and sincerity to shine through this comical exterior, creating a character who has substance beneath his tentative demeanor. Even his feeble excuse for not reporting the murder — “What’s, like another body?” — doesn’t undermine his integrity.

Philip Euling plays Andrew, the victim, as a smart-ass who really is smart. Mary MacDonald Kerr, who gave a lovely performance in Eleemosynary, Victory Gardens’ last production, brings the same poignancy and vulnerability to her performance as Tracy, the murder victim’s girlfriend. Patrick O’Neill looks like the classic Neanderthal bully as Eddy, the killer’s accomplice. Jeremy Sklar and Dan Moser capture the ambivalence of Mark and Randy, two straight arrows who have fallen in with the drug crowd. And Karen Schiff portrays Rachel as a teacher’s pet who enjoys flirting with danger.

Kids in the Dark allowed me to enter the world of adolescents. What horrified me, however, was not what I saw there, but what I saw when I looked out at the world of adults. No matter how hard they try to be independent, teenagers still emulate adults, and they emulate what adults do, not what adults say they are doing. When we look at teens, we see reflections of ourselves, and if we don’t like what we see, we should be sure we’re not criticizing the mirror.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.