Kendall Stallworth and Sergio Morejon in "Zach." Photo by Brittany Carillo
Echoes of “Saved By The Bell” aside, there’s very little in Christian St. Croix’s ‘90s-set “Zach” that looks, sounds or feels purely synonymous with that decade, now 30 years gone. What happens to a couple of teenage fast friends when they succumb to the bad influence of a charismatic new classmate could just as easily occur today -- minus smartphones and social media. Talk about your bad influences.
In Loud Fridge Theatre Group’s two-hander at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista, a pair of fun-loving teens -- African-American Gina (Kendall Stallworth) and Mexican-American P.J. (Sergio Morejon) -- are practically bullied by White, preppy, preening Zach (played back and forth by the two actors) into forming an elite clique with him. This coterie also includes P.J.’s heartthrob Stacy and an awkward class outsider (both also portrayed by Stallworth and Morejon). Before long, Zach has them participating in or cowering from activities that go way beyond the bounds of simple adolescent mischief.
That would seem enough fodder for 80 minutes of teen angst, but St. Croix’s side plots, interwoven to some extent with the Zach narrative, include cisgender Gina’s infatuation with another girl in school and P.J.’s encounter with Stacy’s racist father.
The upshot is a frantically paced change-of-characters exercise for Stallworth and Morejon, both of them students in San Diego State’s Department of Theatre, Television, and Film. That “Zach” is written for just two actors also necessitates a lot of out-loud exposition from them to move the story forward. There’s a sense of Stallworth and Morejon making it up as they along, which doesn’t necessarily serve the message-y material very well.
“Zach” does have much to say about the tribulations of high school in the ‘90s and otherwise. You know, that everything’s potentially fun (a laugh track accompanies some of the action in this play) but practically nothing is easy. Especially relationships, friendships, peer pressure and the critical exploration of self-identity.
San Diegan St. Croix is a thoughtful playwright who knows how to convey the psyches and emotions of young people, as in his “Monsters of the American Cinema” at Diversionary Theatre earlier this year. Tonally, the often-comedic “Zach” is more akin to his “Normal Heights” seen at the San Diego Fringe back in May. In either case, he demonstrated his talent for writing for youthful actors exploring their craft.
Of the two in the Loud Fridge show, Morejon more believably inhabits all the characters entrusted to him and it’s his Zach, sunglasses. swagger and ‘tude in full bloom, that we best are able to see on the stage designed by Duane McGregor. Expressive and energetic, Morejon demonstrates much promise as a future pro.
“Zach” director Amira Temple worked with both Morejon and Stallworth this past spring in an SDSU production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Mother------ with the Hat.” So this Loud Fridge staging had to be a natural transition for all three of them. It is heartening for the evolution of San Diego theater to see students getting a chance to grow on a professional stage and for directors like Temple, a recent graduate of SDSU, to be working with them.
The OnStage Playhouse audience was dominated by young people the night I went to see “Zach,” and their response was enthusiastic.
I wasn’t in high school in the 1990s nor did I watch sitcoms like “Saved By the Bell,” “Clueless” or “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.” But there were Zachs in my high school days before then and I had my own generation of silly TV with underlying “meaning.” I could sit in the audience in Chula Vista and laugh and even relate.
You never forget your high school years, even if much of the time you’d like to.
“Zach” runs through Oct. 28 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.