"Cry baby," "Teacher's Pet" and "Stupid" are all painfully familiar terms of schoolyard rejection, making life wretched for those who don't fit in.
Providing children with the tools to deal with peer rejection and peer pressure is a common goal of much of today's theater for young people.
David Bills' "The Emergence of Mel," presented by the Synthaxis Theatre Company at the GNU Theatre, strives to give children a different perspective on the importance of belonging.
Mel (Marco Hernandez) is miserable. The cool kids put him down and he dreams of ways to win their approval. Mel's poor self-image extends to the classroom, where his lack of success increases his unhappiness.
Even his Inner Voice (David Fulk, offstage) is no help. When Mel sings, "Why Me?" the voice pierces his self-pity by saying reasonably, "It had to be someone." The voice offers a lecture--"What you think about yourself is the important thing"--that initially glides by Mel as quickly as it glides by the audience. It wouldn't stick in real life either--not in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. Mel responds to the pep talk by burying his grief in TV and video games.
The next day, he hits upon a scheme to achieve instant popularity: He'll stand up to Gary (Frank Asher), the school bully, who will prove to be a coward at heart.
This doesn't work out as planned.
More failure follows, and finally Mel decides to try not to worry about what others think and tackle one thing he does have control over--his schoolwork.
He doesn't make the best score in class on the next test, but he does achieve the highest grade he's ever had. Mel's pride in his accomplishment is a first step toward self-esteem.
A worthwhile message and one that comes across convincingly, up to a point. Director Mark Busch allows Angela Carole Brown's lyrics and upbeat music (Gregory Stanton on piano) and a cast of young adults, who portray children without insulting them, to give the minimal staging color and depth.
But in reaching for an inspiring finale, this modest play loses credibility. One of the kids in the group, Marlo (Joey Marie), who has had some sympathy for Mel, is so struck by the change in him that she wants him to teach her how to be "strong and proud." "Maybe someday I can be like you," she says. Bills, who has carefully avoided easy answers throughout, suddenly makes Mel an instant hero.
A truer moment finds Mel, alone on stage, offering himself a cool pat on the back: "Good going, dude."
Performances run at 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. through June 9; (213) 877-4726.