Lesson 1: Adults wearing school uniforms will make almost anything look creepy. All the more so if said adults, all in blond wigs, have the fixed stare of cult members and often speak in unison.
In “Skinnamarink,” a new play from the unpredictable troupe known as Little Lord, school is a Dickensian dystopia filtered through the skewed aesthetics of Tim Burton. Many contemporary plays, even those telegraphing transgressions, feel like live audition reels for television writing gigs. Happily, this one does not, and proudly flies a purely theatrical freak flag.
Seven pupils endure a surreal educational regimen with a mix of feverish enthusiasm and dead-eyed deference. Spiffy in their white-and-mint-green outfits, they go through roll call, reading exercises, synchronized calisthenics and “snacktivities.”
One of those involves the “children” dipping a hand in a jar of peanut butter and smearing it all over their mouths. They never wipe off the sticky substance, whose aroma quickly permeates the intimate Next Door at New York Theater Workshop. This Smell-o-Vision effect contributes to the intense weirdness that saturates “Skinnamarink.” (People with peanut allergies may want to reconsider their tickets.)
Created by the company and directed by Michael Levinton, who is also in the cast, “Skinnamarink” was inspired by McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, textbooks that were first published in 1836 and remained wildly popular until the early 20th century. Paralleling the books’ blend of pedagogy and moralizing, the show constantly plays off the double meaning of the word “instruction” — a schooling process but also a disciplinary tool. Groupthink is encouraged and whoever gets the dunce cap is shamed: “No one loves a bad boy. No one can love those who are bad.”
The children follow orders piped out from a speaker as a disembodied voice of authority (Kate Weber) leads the class through rote learning, cryptic drills and petty humiliations, all seasoned with a pinch of grotesque. At one point the students put on mouth retractors, making them look as if they are visiting a dentist in the darkly satirical series “Black Mirror.”
As always, Little Lord, which describes its shows as “junk spectaculars,” practices an open-source approach. While much of the material, like a cautionary tale about a “greedy girl,” is lifted from the Eclectic Readers, the company’s magpie M.O. provides leeway to incorporate, say, a poem about Jack Frost (“Who hath killed the pretty flowers/Born and bred in summer bowers?”) or lines from V.C. Andrews’ “Flowers in the Attic” (“If I ever catch boys and girls using the facilities at the same time, I will quite relentlessly, and without mercy, peel the skins from your backs”).
These disparate borrowings are integrated into a bewildering whole that is much tighter than Little Lord’s chaotically sprawling previous production, “Now Is the Time. Now Is the Best Time. Now Is the Best Time of Your Life.” Even the titles reflect the difference, with three short sentences replaced by a single word — which refers to an old singalong that became a staple of the Canadian trio Sharon, Lois & Bram’s repertoire.
Another song by that combo is put to deliciously goofy use at the very end of the evening. By then the audience may not even mind that it, too, has been indoctrinated.
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Through March 23 at Next Door at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; 212-460-5475, nytw.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
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