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A Down Under juvenile debate


January 10, 2006

The picture of fatally aimless youth offered by "The Stones," a thoroughly average two-man show from Down Under, is unfortunately not shocking or unfamiliar to anyone who's paid even passing attention to our post-Columbine culture.

These, it seems, are civilization's new discontents: over-stimulated, under-employed teens, micro-adults unmoored from any moral bearings, who treat both property and living things as if they're targets in a video game.

So it is that a pair of Melbourne teenagers, portrayed here by show creators Stefo Nantsou and Tom Lycos, can segue with ease from breaking and entering a garage to dousing a cat in gasoline, to kicking large rocks off a freeway overpass onto passing cars. This last amusement, based on a real 1994 incident, kills a driver and leads the boys to court, and leads the play to thorny questions of juvenile justice, as a pair of cops, also portrayed by Nantsou and Lycos, clash over the questions of guilt and responsibility.

"What if it were your wife in the car?" says the cynical cop who advocates a guilty verdict. "What if it were your son who did it?" retorts the other, who favors a more compassionate approach. For teenage audiences, this stark framing of the debate may seem like a real mind bender, and spur a complex debate. This is in fact the intended and most frequent audience for "The Stones," which makes a stop at the New Victory Theater Center after playing innumerable high school assemblies.

But for most audiences, this either/or line of argument seems as reductive as a talk-radio shouting match, not least because it doesn't delve into the real questions on our mind: Forget the verdict, what would the sentence be? Is there perhaps a practical, socially responsible middle ground somewhere between lynching and absolution? Is the choice in a juvenile-justice case really ever between stringing the kids up or setting them scot-free?

Nantsou and Lycos are limber, seasoned performers who move this didactic piece along deftly, using little more than a ladder and two sawhorses for a set and filling it in with miming and sound-effect tricks. To switch between teen and adult characters, they imperceptibly unzip their sweatsuits to reveal business ties; it's a fine sleight of hand, and one four-way interrogation scene is a model of simple stage magic.

But to say that these two authentically evoke teenage behavior or emotions would be a stretch. The small, wiry Lycos shakes and shudders as if he just consumed a case of Twinkies, while the lumbering Nantsou - who looks like a cross between Harold Pinter and Craig T. Nelson - sneers and makes sour faces. They're not a very fun duo, in short, even when they're imitating a bloodbath from "Kill Bill" or skipping rocks across a pond near an aboriginal site. If we're supposed to lament how they lose their childlike innocence with the stone-throwing incident, it would be good to witness a little of that carefree innocence.

The two performers open and close with noodling electric guitar jams that display an overawed attitude toward blues scales and effects pedals - easily the most convincingly teen-aged thing in the show.

The Stones. Written and performed by Stefo Nantsou and Tom Lycos. Through Jan. 22 at the Duke on 42nd Street. 7 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $20. Call 212-239-6200. Seen Dec. 7.

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