(Clockwise) Ricardo Dávila as Rich, Daniel Velasco as Dara, Sabrina Koss as Kailee, Mai Le as Allison, and Kiaya Scott as Sophie in Alley Theater’s production of High School Play: A Nostalgia Fest .
Photo: Lynn Lane
Those who don’t remember high school are doomed to do it again.
It does not matter. Everyone remembers high school. Dallas-born playwright Vichet Chum certainly does, drawing on his formative years in suburban Carrollton to create the bittersweet ‘High School Play: A Nostalgia Fest,’ which is now enjoying its world premiere at the Alley until February 13; then on digital streaming from February 14 to 27.
The high school hallways of Houston-born director Tiffany Nichole Greene contain traces of “Saved By the Bell” and a pungent smell of Mike Judge’s “King of the Hill,” but also the prejudices and presumptions latent in any wealthy provincial. suburban school then or now. The children are beautiful and totally stressed; teachers exude school spirit and anxiety, and are not above underhanded tactics if it serves their advantage.
“High School Play” is set in one of the most unforgiving and unforgiving subcultures: the major high school theater departments of Texas. Many 5A and 6A football coaches are less closely injured than Todd Waite’s Mr. Dirkson, visibly smart and quite profane about his team’s lackluster performance at last year’s state meet. Her counterpart Mrs. Blow (Melissa Pritchett) delivers pep talks and clueless flippant racism with a sugary drawl as wide as the Brazos.
It feels less like Chum settling old scores (except perhaps with the school board) than simply reflecting on his own experiences, with varying degrees of sympathy. Portrayed by a diverse cast of talented young actors, its characters are good kids dealing with a cauldron of issues: emerging sexuality (both gay and straight), estranged parents, eating disorders, a new and low-key hostile environment. The so-called “bible bangers” among them have a few more added to the pile.
The theater team of Dirkson and Blow take themselves seriously and revel in being performative. Their signature move goes into sluggish, slow-mo encounters like the opening credits of ABC’s legal drama “The Practice,” resulting in a hilariously stylized play to “Oops!” by Britney Spears. I’ve done it again.” Sound designer Melanie Chen Cole’s song placement is impeccable throughout, sprucing up scenes with Ciara, OutKast, Kelly Clarkson, Eminem and more.
As Dara, the theater’s future star pupil, Daniel Velasco is the emotional center of the play. Dara hopes to escape the shadow of her talented and rebellious older brother – whose relentless overacting sunk his team’s fortunes (and won Best Actor) at last year’s State Meet – but fears he will never measure up. The arrival of Paul (the charismatic and complex Jered Tetty), a new black student from New York whom the professors almost immediately designate as their new leader, only makes matters worse. As Dara sorts out who he is and what he stands for, he struggles to come to terms with Paul’s friendship overtures (and possibly more).
Chum’s other characters come to life as they rehearse their original speaking monologues for the State Speech Contest. Ricardo Dávila, as the proud and proud pot brewer, balances bravado and shame as he recounts his awkward (and potentially deadly) first sexual encounter. Allison de Mai Le gives her usual effervescence a real edge as she vents against her bossy, holy-rolling adoptive mother: “JC doesn’t count my calories.
Dar’s girlfriend, Kailee (Sabrina Koss), meanwhile, is a pot doomed to overflow, ruminating on both her evasive attitude and her newfound disillusionment with life as a state champion speaker, so she decides to ignite with a brilliant self-sabotage piece titled “Why Don’t We Pray for Satan?” Finally, the overall joker is the wise and free-spirited Sophie (Kiaya Scott), whose long-buried psychic wounds surface during an insightful and quite funny monologue on “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
To make their case, Chum and Greene prefer to wield a chisel rather than a hammer. The plot thickens as the springtime one-act play approaches, and Dirkson’s efforts to produce “Six Degrees of Separation” — a surefire state title winner who, as it happens, also features a disruptive black character named Paul — are derailed when Allison’s adoption mom (also Pritchett, killing George W. Bush in the process) organizes a petition to stop him. The ensuing school board meeting pushes Dara to heights of eloquence he has never reached in any previous state meeting.
“High School Play” shows how competition can bring out the best and the worst in people, in crackling dialogue that provokes both laughter and thought. If Chum and Greene really did their job – and they did – you’ll never think of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” the same way again.
When: Until February 13; broadcast from February 14 to 27
Or: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave.
Details: $28-$74; 713-220-5700; alleytheatre.org
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.