‘Exception to the Rule’ Off Broadway Review: A Disturbing Update on ‘The Breakfast Club’

Dave Harris’ exceptional new play reminds us that high school is even worse than we remember

exception to the rule
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

We have all seen this movie before. A small plane holding a few passengers crash lands somewhere in a jungle or high up in the Himalayas. They’re doomed, but maybe there’s a chance if one of them ventures out into the wilderness or the extreme cold to get help.

Dave Harris takes that rather musty premise and pumps new life into it by turning the stranded airplane into a high school’s detention class. His exceptional “Exception to the Rule” opened Tuesday at Roundabout’s Black Box Theatre, which might be the perfect space for such a drama. This tiny, low-ceilinged theater induces claustrophobia, and Miranda Haymon’s broad-strokes direction of the play definitely makes us feel trapped.

The performances may come off a little too broad, not to mention loud, as one by one the students (Malik Childs, Mister Fitzgerald, Toney Goins, Amandla Jahava, and Claudia Logan) enter the detention classroom, which in Reid Thompson and Kamil James’ set design pushes the audience just beyond the stage.

Haymon and her talented cast, however, may know something I’ve forgotten about teenagers. All those pent-up hormones when unleashed can be explosive. Certainly there’s a big payoff for all that noise when Erika (MaYaa Boateng) enters the classroom. She is more commonly known as “college-bound” Erika. Everybody else in the room is a hardened veteran of the detention process, which announcements from the loudspeaker (voice by Daniel Breaker) never stop informing them is a “zero-tolerance” program. Erika is a first-timer. She is the good girl, the potential class valedictorian, the one who’s going to college. She is, in other words, everything the five other students resent about the school system. What did Erika possibly do to end up with them in detention?

It’s just about the last question any of the other five students ever ask in “Exception to the Rule,” which plays out in real time for 90 minutes.

Erika, surprisingly, is the one who asks nothing but questions. What’s the point of detention? How long do they have to stay? Why are they fighting each other? And above all, when is Mr. Bernie, the teacher in charge of detention, going to show up? Anyone who has ever seen “Waiting for Godot” knows that Mr. Bernie is never going to show. 

Last season at Playwrights Horizons, Harris’ “Tambo & Bones” delivered a surreal portrait of a minstrel act as it morphed through the near past into the distant future. 

With help from lighting designer Cha See and sound designer Lee Kinney, Harris’ penchant for the surreal is again on full display, and used for more shocking effect. What lies beyond the classroom door and down the hallway is far more threatening than a jungle or winter landscape.

Harris addresses issues specific to African-American youth here, but since this playwright is the real thing, an artist, he also speaks to a broader audience. We’re all set on a specific track early in life. How much choice does anyone really have?