“A boy will break your jaw; a girl will break your soul,” is a good, biting line in Naomi Iizka’s Good Kids currently being presented by The Ohio State University Department of Theatre; what’s unfortunate is that it is never followed up with any hint of an explanation as to why that might be the case. It’s just one of many flashes of cleverness that quickly dissolve in this solid production of a poorly crafted play.
Good Kids was commissioned as part of the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative to create new works written by (and with substantial roles for) women. This is a program that I completely support and feel is a worthy cause, but I don’t think – judging by the resulting script – that Naomi Iizuka was a good match for this subject matter. The plot concerns teenagers at a party and how one girl ends up getting drunk and passing out, only to learn later that she was raped by a group of football players and the event live tweeted to the student body. It’s a cautionary tale, and based on an actual event from 2012 that occurred in Steubenville, Ohio. If ever there was a strong basis for a powerful work of theatre that could also serve to warn others of the dangers of intoxication and social media, this is it; however, what Ms. Iizuka has delivered is little more than a public service announcement without any depth.
At least the production of the play is of a high caliber. Mandy Fox’s direction is assured and incorporates some excellent projections and real-time video to aid in telling the story. She makes good use of a truck on the stage and the advantages of the lighting options made possible by the walkway above the performance space. She guides a cast with quite varied abilities very well, and the ultimate failure of the piece is not due to lack of effort on her part or that of her cast and crew; in fact, the production quality itself is what would make this play worth seeing, not the script.
Standouts in the cast are Linnea Bond as Deidre, a wheelchair-bound computer expert who serves as the story’s narrator; Alexandra Davis as Chloe, the girl who is assaulted; and Tom McKinney as Landon, perfect as one of the loud and tough football players. Ms. Bond uses her wheelchair like a pro, so much so that I was shocked to see her walk out for the curtain call! She moves the play forward and delivers her asides to the audience with professionalism. Ms. Davis shows her ability to bring energy to scenes that are underwritten, and an important scene in the truck after the assault is quite touching as she brings such palpable vulnerability to the moment; I just wish the script gave her more with which to work. Mr. McKinney epitomizes the kind of intimidating dumb jock we all remember from high school, the one who hugs his ignorance close as if it is an asset rather than a liability. Mr. McKinney isn’t afraid of being disliked in his character, something his male co-stars could stand to learn; his may be the biggest stereotype of all in this piece, but his eyes show that there is more going on in his mind even if the material never verbalizes it.
Entire scenes play out with characters talking at each other rather than really communicating, and many of their lines are interchangeable; anyone could say these words as they are generic and lack any defining perspective. So many times characters ask questions to other characters and to the audience in awkward asides, but there are never any answers. Perhaps it was written that way so that the audience would engage in discussions afterwards, but in doing so it robs this story of heart; we never care about anyone in the play because no one is remotely likable with any qualities to differentiate them from each other. There is also the feeling like we never get enough information to solve the equation as it seems every character and scene is treated with kid gloves.
The story is told in non-linear fashion, with one key scene playing out twice because it is told from two different perspectives, an interesting choice. Buzz words like “hashtag” and “selfie” are used quite a bit, and sometimes they appear projected on a screen above and behind the action. There is nothing wrong with any of this except that it serves to distract from the fact that nothing noteworthy is happening. This is a work that keeps the audience at arm’s length all the way through, as empty and vapid as the teenagers portrayed in the story.
Anyone familiar with the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case on which this work was based will walk in knowing more about what happened than this play ever offers. Every punch that can be pulled is pulled in this telling, even though the advertising warns that “this show contains adult content and themes of sexual violence and is suggested for viewers 14 and older.” Aside from some cussing, this production is incredibly tame; it gives the impression that all the guys did with her was laugh, pour drinks, push her around, and play with her hair. If you want to make an impact, make one – don’t dance around issues as important as rape and social media abuse and offer a simple “be careful” warning. I’m not saying I attended the play looking forward to a rape scene and nudity, but I also didn’t plan to end the evening feeling so empty having learned nothing new about the incident upon which this play is based.
Good Kids doesn’t shine any additional light on the topics of rape, social media abuse, or peer pressure, despite having an impressive technical production and a large cast of willing students. Though well meaning, the script comes off more like an after school special than affecting theatre. On second thought, no; even those ’80s after school specials had more character than this work. It is far from being a waste of time, but it could’ve been so much more. I found myself asking a question of my own after seeing it; which is worse, to be raped or to be raped and have such an undercooked play written about it?
** out of ****
Good Kids continues through to November 1st at the Roy Bowen Theatre in the Drake Performance and Event Center on the Ohio State University campus at 1849 Cannon Drive in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://theatre.osu.edu/events/good-kids