Teenaged Terror

Today's kids live in a world rich with violent images. Every tot-friendly character, from studly Nintendo kick-boxers to the utterly ironic Itchy and Scratchy, seems to enjoy blowing, cutting or stomping off their opponents' heads on a minute-by-minute basis these days. Just how much and how deeply these electronic images affect the psyche and behavior of children is, of course, of growing concern.

Americans are terribly afraid, and rightly so, of controlling speech acts, even those directed at children. Thus we are, in effect, trapped by our own belief systems into a sort of stunned shoulder shrug every time we turn on the TV and find out that yet another rugrat has donned his automatic six-shooters and fashioned himself into a pint-sized Rambo ready to blow away a school-yard full of classmates.

It was, of course, only a matter of time before the media itself began exploring, perhaps exploiting, its own culpability in our violent world. And who better than playwright William Mastrosimone -- famous for his play Extremities -- to raise questions about a world in which kids respond to violence with violence. Like Totally Weird, in its Houston premiere at Theater LaB, is a provocative, if not fully realized, examination of kids who take what they see on their various video screens much too seriously, and of the adults who gleefully create the creepy images despite growing evidence that wanton violence in the media affects and damages our world.

Russ Riegel (Mark J. Roberts) is a Hollywood go-getter of the first order. He specializes in those violent shoot-'em-up movies that make truckloads of money. And he's a jerk, there's no question about that. We first see him hanging out on the couch, attached to the phone, barking orders at this secretary as he lies and finagles his way into more money, a woman's pants and lots and lots of power.

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What Russ doesn't yet know is that two teenaged fans Kenney (Dustin Ross) and Jimmy (Pete Babb) have crawled out of the movie theater and over his security gate and straight into his living room. All that mayhem Riegel's been putting on the movie screen has come home to roost for the night. And what a night it will be.

These boys fit every news description flashed across the TV screen recently. Kenney is the totally amoral leader. Complete with Charlie Manson undershirt, which he proudly displays as a sort of alter ego costume, this kid enjoys killing animals, trashing property and humiliating his best bud Jimmy.

Riegel is in for the wheeling and dealing of his life when he realizes the boys are in his house and that Kenney is dead serious about becoming a serious bad-ass. Upstairs is Riegel's girlfriend Jennifer (JeanAnn Hutsel), an award-winning actress who made it in Hollywood via the casting couch only to discover making mindlessly violent movies may not be as fulfilling as she hoped it would be. And during the night with the two boys -- who enjoy acting out in the flesh some pretty terrifying scenes from Riegel's latest flick -- Jennifer and Russ (who spend a good deal of the evening chained) are given an opportunity to see the mindless world they've helped create while secluded in their Hollywood fortress.

Mastrosimone's script is ambitious though flawed. Several scenes go on far too long. A very scared Jennifer tries to win her freedom by teaching the boys how to beat a video game, but the point she makes -- that it's wisdom rather than strength that wins the game -- is much too long in coming. Russ explains to an enraged Jennifer why it hurts him more to see his pet bird get exploded in the microwave than it does to see her get raped by Kenney. However, the sad tale he tells of being sick in the jungle on a movie set with only the parrot for company is laughably melodramatic.

These scenes are not helped by Christian DeVries's sometimes graceless direction. When rather waifish Jennifer has to go through the violent motions of a kick-boxing video character, it's hard to believe she has ever even seen a video game, much less won one that has baffled the most ardent boy-teen fan. And it is inexplainable that Russ and Jennifer are chained up at the back of the set, behind the furniture, for at least a quarter of the script. Ross needed more directorial help with the complexity of his Kenney character. He makes life-threatening, U-turn decisions that demand nuance and wit to make them believable. Babb, however, is quite strong as the hangdog Jimmy, a boy who realizes entirely too late that he's in way over his head. His youth and seeming innocence create a boy who is frightening in his inability to think for himself, and sympathetic for exactly that reason.

Like Totally Weird says a lot of what we already know, that kids are suffering, that we all, in fact, are suffering from a disease of our own making. Violence begets violence. How to undo the damage is another matter all together.

Like Totally Weird plays through December 20 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo. 868-7516. $18-$20.

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