Rebel Without a Cause
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
October 8, 2005
So what does a stage adaptation of one of the most famous films of all time, Rebel Without a Cause, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the film, have to offer that the original doesn’t? Based on Barely Balancing Artists Group’s current production: nothing. This attempt to dramatize a familiar movie fails because it has not re-imagined the story for the stage. Not only are there are no new insights here, it is so literally based on its source material that the experience is the equivalent of watching a group of friends act out the scenes of the movie for each other.
The story is a classic of middle-class teen angst in the conformist 1950s. To say new kid on the block Jim Stark is having difficulty adjusting to his new hometown is an understatement. A gang of high school toughs has singled out the friendless teen for knife fights and an extreme stunt called a “chicken run”: two cars race off the end of a cliff and the first driver to jump out of the car before it reaches the precipice is declared a “chicken.” When the “chicken run” results in the death of Buzz, the leader of the pack, Jim is racked with guilt and bonds with two other frightened teen outsiders—Judy, Buzz’s girlfriend, whose tough veneer melts away as she develops a sweet, genuine romance with Jim; and Plato, a sensitive, confused boy whose globe-trotting parents have all but abandoned him and left him to be raised by their maid, Mrs. Davis. By the end, the police and parents have cornered the teens, who have found the peace they seek in an abandoned mansion and the companionship and understanding they seek in each other, and the story finishes with the taking of another young life—a symbolic sacrificial lamb.
Playwright James Fuller follows the film closely, but he has trimmed a bit (most notably removing Judy’s family from the story), and added a scene here and there to further fill out the narrative. But these new scenes belabor and overexplain a story which is artfully and precisely told in the film. The addition here of the character Officer Mullen, whose “tough cop” interrogation style is a counterpoint to the more touchy-feely Officer Ray character from the movie, seems more a device than a well-written character.
The production and performances don’t help things. The play is co-directed by Joshua Coleman (who also plays the lead role of Jim Stark) and Brian Stites, who also is artistic director of the producing company. Their blocking has the actors consistently upstaging each other, the transitions between scenes are long and awkward, and there is a general lack of dramatic pacing. Here’s an example: Early in the piece, a scene taking place in a police station employs a double-sided revolving set piece; one side is the waiting area outside Officer Ray’s office, the other is the office. The unit is turned from one side to the other—not a quick process—multiple times throughout the evening, slowing down the the action and forward momentum of the play for no justifiable reason. If the directors were primarily concerned with clearly telling this story rather than simply copying scenes from the movie, surely this repeated switching would have been cut to allow the story to move forward.
Joshua Coleman’s portrayal of Jim seems entirely based on an imitation of James Dean’s iconic turn in the film version, hunched shoulders, pained facial expression, and all. But where Dean’s Jim is a tense bundle of nerves, a tormented man-child overflowing with emotions and thoughts he hasn’t the tools to express, Coleman simply goes through the motions without any of the motivating intentions. Because of this, there’s no chemistry or real emotion between Jim and Judy, played by Erin Cunningham; their scenes together pass without making any kind of impression at all. Indeed, the character of Judy has a significantly diminished role here; Judy’s father, with whom she shared a borderline incestuous relationship in the film, does not appear, so the source of her angst is never clearly explained. Allie Mulholland as Plato at least seems invested in his role and his performance reveals some skill and experience. The high school boys led by Judy’s boyfriend Buzz, played by Major Dodge, are rowdy, loud, and lively. Peter Bongiorno is wooden as Office Ray, and though Jamie Effros’s Officer Mullen is spirited, it’s difficult to accept that he is a police officer as he appears to be younger than the student toughs he interrogates. Selena C. Dukes valiantly does all she can with the small role of Mrs. Davis, Plato’s maid and surrogate maternal figure.
There is some creative work by lighting designer Lauren Phillips, notably a bright headlight effect for the “chicken run” scene, but the lighting frequently is overly dim, at one point near the end so dim as to be invisible. Constant blackouts after every scene are jarring and confusing to the audience, who take them as a signal to clap after every scene.
In the end, Rebel Without a Cause feels like a vanity piece for a group of fans of the movie who had a notion (and some capital) to bring their fan show to New York. It’s hard to imagine the stage version of Rebel Without a Cause having a future, not because it’s not a good idea, but because this particular version has nothing to offer but a less-than-skillful reenactment of the film.