Prime Stage Theater’s adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a sincere, though sickly-sweet interpretation of the Young Adult Literature phenomenon. To enter the New Hazlett Theater and revisit this oft-remembered, rarely revisited story is to yet again come of age and recall that high school is, generally speaking, really crappy but also really important.
Charlie (Peter Joseph Kelly Stamerra), who is alternately stoic and desperate, is a lonely high school freshman who’s had a tough life. He divides his time between being ridiculed by his peers, struggling with his mental health, obsessing over any of the half-dozen awful tragedies he’s experienced, and generating phrases people will want to get tattooed on themselves in his journal. He is, in other words, the Alpha and the Omega of YAL protagonists. Your ability to enjoy the play will likely hinge on your capacity to enjoy Charlie.
Wallflower is not a play about journaling and wallowing, however, and the story’s pace picks up significantly once Charlie strikes up a friendship with the extroverted, scene-stealing Patrick (Logan Shiller) and Sam (Julia Zoratto), an adventurous young woman intent on pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone who Charlie immediately falls in love with to no one’s surprise.
More heavily influenced by the film than the original novel, Wallflower director Jeffrey M. Cordell’s adaptation is too direct with its drama and too flippant with its supporting cast and sub-plot to quite capture what made the original work so compelling.
Stephen Chbosky’s original script is a comprehensive course on how delicately a writer must balance a plot built on nostalgia, teen drama, and abuse. This is partially because Chbosky’s bittersweet-ness is less perfectly balanced than it is nearly imbalanced; for every awkward first kiss or pot brownie there are two ham-fisted quotes about what being alive feels like. To be fair, many would argue that’s part of the novel’s/film’s authenticity.
Prime Stage Theater’s work, which utilizes Hailey Rohn’s script, is by contrast too eager to orbit the story around the big moments (think the famous (infamous?) bridge sequence), and turn what was awkward yet complex into something melodramatic yet sincere.
To dismiss Wallflower as overdramatic would be unfair, because when it hits those heavier, more intimate moments, I did find myself consulting with my inner teenager the same way as I did watching the film. Stamerra possesses that very necessary contained desperation inherent to his character, and he really nails the whole ‘ahhhhh did I say the wrong thing???’-ness of his character. On that note, Shiller’s Patrick is full of the posi-vibed buoyancy one would expect, and Zoratto’s Sam has a palpable subdued confidence. Many quiet moments pass between these three that are as vulnerable as you’d ever want.
Unfortunately, the play’s various explosions – be they sequences where silhouettes of lost loved ones or abusers loom over the cast, or moments of sudden violence – too closely stick to the film’s aesthetic, and can feel a little bloodless. Scenes in which Charlie narrates his journal entries feel almost unnecessary the way they’re sped past, and important characters like Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend Derek (Connor Bahr) and the well-meaning English teacher Mr. Anderson (John Feightner) are played too broadly and are too peripheral to justify the stage time they do manage to get.
The supporting cast often interacts with Charlie as they adjust the objects on set, which is a fun twist, but that and the dramatic use of silhouettes in lieu of flashbacks make up most of The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s theatric adjustments. The ingredients for a great adaptation are all here, but too much focus on recapturing the magic of a less intimate medium make the play feel more like a greatest hits of its progenitor than an out and out creative success.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 14. For tickets and more information click here.
Special thanks to Prime Stage for complimentary press tickets.