“Mean Girls” meets “The Crucible” in Philip Dawkins’s clever drama “The Burn,” which finds a young Christian girl named Mercedes getting bullied by a coven of witches brewing up curses in their social media cauldron.
They’re not really witches, just three teens who chirp and gurgle about how Mercedes is a “total freak show” and how, as the ringleader says, it’s not bullying to say so — it’s just honest. In this high school setting, Dawkins’s “Crucible” comparisons come with ease, because the fifth character is the drama teacher and the subject is Arthur Miller’s durable parable of demonizing mobs.
This well-acted area premiere at Hub Theatre is one of two new small-scale shows set in schools, along with Reina Hardy’s feel-good “Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven.” Hardy’s sprightly 75-minute comedy — the lesser of the two offerings, at least from a grown-up point of view — aims to show that science is safe for girls. How? By having a sexy alien drop in from space to jolly a promising student in the right direction.
As the brainy, fashionable alien dressed with her midriff bare, the quick-talking, unfailingly cheerful Emily Whitworth seems to be having the most fun in this light effort from the fantasists at Rorschach Theatre. (Medha Marsten’s slightly bumpy production is staged in the Atlas Performing Arts Center.) You feel breezes from “The Magic Schoolbus” via a teacher who’s a knockoff of Ms. Frizzle. You detect tremors of “Big Bang Theory” in the steady clip of nerd jokes. Vanessa Chapoy is properly animated with curiosity as the title character getting coached by the alien, but this simple story mainly aims to inspire young kids you might bring along.
“The Burn” is substantially more complex, and acted with the overlapping voices of a TweetDeck feed by director Matt Bassett’s cast. The opening scene is a dense quartet, with Elliott Kashner as the teacher plowing through “The Crucible,” Christina Day as a white jock trying to talk gangsta, Rae Venna as a mean girl who might have a conscience and Chloe Mikala as a hair-tossing, domineering Queen Bee.
The girls’ catty dialogue is what they’re tapping on their phones, only Mercedes — the nicely hesitant Gabby Wolfe — is kept on the outside. “The Crucible” is a savvy story for Dawkins to flip in the social media age; rumors still hurt, and the power of a united clique seems particularly formidable as Mikala’s character preens in the impregnable glory of her “likes.”
Twists include a troubled history for Kashner’s eager-to-please teacher; the anxiety of Kashner’s performance is nicely judged. So is the line between bashfulness and certitude in Wolfe’s Mercedes, whose Christian faith makes her reluctant to audition for Miller’s frenzied play. The Hub, with Bassett stepping into the artistic director’s position last year, has left its hard-to-find base in Fairfax and is temporarily at NextStop Theatre’s hard-to-find stage near Reston. The company’s track record of finding interesting plays such as “The Burn” makes you watchful for where they might land.
The Burn, by Philip Dawkins. Directed by Matt Bassett. Set, Elizabeth Zuck; lights, Catherine Girardi; costumes, Grace Mitchell; sound, Reid May. About 90 minutes. Through May 11 at NextStop Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon. $32. thehubtheatre.org.
Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven, by Reina Hardy. Directed by Medha Marsten. Set, Matt Wolfe; costumes, Julie Cray Leong; lights, Katie McCreary; video design, Kylos Brannon; sound design, Veronica J. Lancaster. With Zach Brewster-Geisz, Aron Spellane and Robin Covington. Through May 19 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $30. 202-399-7993 or rorschachtheatre.com.