The set of Mariah MacCarthy’s Honors Students at Wild Project greets you with pops of color: a bright triad of yellow, pink, and blue backdrops for walls. Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor, and Lorde pepper the interludes between scenes. Games of truth or dare and f—, marry, kill abound. It’s so classically high school, so teenager, so upbeat and sweet and witty at times, you’ll momentarily forget the persistent undertone of impending murder.
You might even forget the indirect but hard-hitting #MeToo commentary, or the overtones of blatant violence, abuse, and manipulation. But like a sucker punch or an extreme adolescent mood swing, the characters bring them back as quickly as they were abandoned. Cora (Thanh Ta) and Minnie (Olivia Levine) are – excuse the redundancy – honors students with a dysfunctional friendship, to say the least. (To say the most, it’s incredibly toxic and abusive. Not for the easily disturbed.) Through a little scheming and blackmail, they plan to skip town and start their lives anew. The smooth trajectory of the plan is thwarted when Minnie befriends Megan (Arielle Goldman), an outsider from school with a wildly popular(ly disliked) YouTube channel and an incisive way with words. The unprecedented warmth and honesty she brings to their friendship gives Minnie second thoughts and motivates her to face her deep fear of Cora. But the swift self-liberation narrative also inevitably gets skewed when, you know, knives get involved. Chris Harcum rounds out the cast as multiple suburban dads and one little old lady who’s oddly comfortable asking a teenager how she’d like to die (and gets a little more than she bargained for with Cora, the one teenager who actually has a meticulously detailed and graphic answer).
Thanh Ta plays a terrifyingly brilliant Cora. Unhinged and unpredictable, she almost makes Heathers’ J.D. look tame. Ta’s character has that same ability to switch from harrowing to heart-wrenching on a dime, and Ta plays both so well that you (possibly to your own shock) find yourself sympathizing deeply with Cora moments after recoiling at her sadistic side. When one of Harcum’s dad characters asks how her generation manages all their responsibilities and pressure and she replies with a deadpan, “We get anxiety disorders,” it’s moving. It’s even a little relatable. And then you remember, as you’re relating with her, that she assaulted her best friend a mere 10 minutes ago. It’s easy to categorize her as the villain and move on, but Ta’s attentiveness to Cora’s emotional complexity and base desire for validation are not without great merit. Goldman, too, brings such an intrigue to her Megan that you just keep wanting to know more of her. What horrors has she gone through? How does she remain so optimistic in the face of relentless jeers on the Internet? How much of it is a facade? Megan remains an enigma, and Goldman blends awkwardness and pluck seamlessly in her performance. And she makes awful dancing fun and not entirely cringeworthy to watch.
Honors Students is off-kilter. It’s intense. It blurs that same tricky line as Heathers does, where you wonder if MacCarthy lets her characters get away with a little too much malice. But it’s an excellent show with a lot of worthwhile takeaways: pay attention to and support your kids. A difficult past doesn’t justify being toxic in the present. You can get out of the bad situation or find the thing to live for that you thought you never would. And among all the other unanswered questions about Megan’s past and Cora and Minnie’s future, we ask ourselves… f—, marry, kill: zero, pi, imaginary number i?