Review: There's Much More than Three Chords and an Attitude to "The Best Punk Band in Conway, Missouri"

The Best Punk Band in Conway, Missouri: An Oral History of Presley Cox and the Fallout Five

Written by Kirby Fields

Directed by Rachael Murray

Presented by UP Theater Company at Fort Washington Collegiate Church

729 W 181st St., Manhattan, NYC

May 3-20, 2023

Henry Temple, Devin Romero, and Zuzu. Photo by Amy Milstein
For a certain group of us, few things are better than a live punk or metal show, preferably in the smallest venue possible, so it is genuinely exciting to see the new production from NYC's UP Theater Company successfully translate that energy to a stage play. The Best Punk Band in Conway, Missouri: An Oral History of Presley Cox and the Fallout Five, from UP Artistic Director Kirby Fields, though, is not merely an uncritical celebration of punk and local music in a time and place when such DIY scenes were still fully analog and offered one of the few sites for certain types of outsiders to find community. Set in the fictional small town of Conway, Missouri, The Best Punk Band tells an absorbing, multifaceted, and often melancholy story of ambition, personal struggle, and coming of age in the late 1980s.
Henry Temple, Zuzu, and Samantha Simone. Photo by Amy Milstein.
This story focuses on the titular Presley, who starts a band with high-school classmates Gendry and Trip, and is framed through the conceit of the erstwhile musical collaborators recalling the brief rise and fall of their band for the oral history of the subtitle. As these older versions of the characters (Jess Wood as Presley, Kirk White as Gentry, and Jason Guy as Trip) discuss their past, we see that past play out via their younger selves (played by Zuzu, Henry Temple, and Devin Romero, respectively), which allows both for some of those remembrances to clash with one another and for some interesting doubling, such as White's also playing Presley's bitter, racist, homophobic father as well as the queer Gentry, and Guy as both adult Trip and young Presley's guidance counselor (who has in common with several characters a of unfulfilled musical aspirations). Presley, with the conviction of youth and the belief that becoming a punk star is her means to escape Conway, her impoverished home life, and her feelings of unbelonging, angrily swears to the counselor in one scene that she will never end up like him. However, the inexactly named Presley Cox and the Fallout Five, which arises after Presley has a chance encounter with a punk singer at a local show and makes its house-party debut after barely more than a handful of rehearsals, is ultimately headed for a revealing flameout.  
Jess Wood in front of the pit. Photo by Amy Milstein. 
Although the three band members are at the show's center, the production develops its world enough that a where-are-they-now coda that includes several of the minor characters feels well-earned rather than superfluous. Brief interjections and repetitions by the ensemble lend the show a type of musicality of its own beyond the live musical performances by the cast. And if we don't get a fantasy ending in the world of the play, we do get a kind of imagined version of such an ending in a final punk number and, in a way, another version in the form of one of the most fun curtain calls we have seen. Throughout, the talented cast blends that sense of fun with a beguiling pathos. Wood, for instance, lends a poignant weariness to the older Presley that extends and contrasts the mix of anger and guardedness with which Zuzu invests her younger self; Temple and White share a kind of down-to-earth vulnerability in their respective takes on Gentry, while the latter brings just enough sympathetic nuance to Presley's boorish father; and Guy is equally terrific as Trip, the well-meaning counselor, and a music producer with something of a Tennessee Williams vibe. Those who have gone to shows in the cramped basement of someone's house or joined the pit in a local VFW post might feel a more intense personal connection to The Best Punk Band in Conway, Missouri, but anyone who has who has ever dreamed even briefly of making more of creative expression than a circumscribed hobby can find much to relate to as well. As much as Presley's story is a personal and specific one, it also reminds us that there are plenty of Presleys–and Gentrys, Trips, and so on–in every city and town. The Best Punk Band in Conway, Missouri succeeds in giving real weight to the fate of a fictional high-school punk band, but it also makes it affectingly clear why such weight is deserved.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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