'Girlfriend': Theater Review

Girlfriend Play - H 2015
Craig Schwartz

Girlfriend Play - H 2015

Treacly pop tunes are a perfect fit for this heartfelt teen romance, elevated by fine writing and outstanding direction 

Todd Almond's chamber musical about gay first love, inspired by Matthew Sweet's 1991 album of the same name, makes its Los Angeles premiere.

Recording artist Matthew Sweet was grappling with the end of his six-year marriage when he released Girlfriend in 1991. A “breakup” record including pop ballads like “I’ve Been Waiting,” “Looking at the Sun” and other songs about coming together and coming apart, the album fits organically into Todd Almond’s sweet and sincere chamber musical of the same name. Following a tryout at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2010, Girlfriend offers not just the touching and often hilarious joining of high-schoolers Will and Mike, but a perfect blend of Les Waters’ astute direction with Almond’s formally minimalist book.

New Year’s Day is what Will (Ryder Bach) calls the day he graduates high school, a fresh start on life. That’s all well and good, but he doesn’t seem to have much direction, lying around listening to Girlfriend, given him by a guy at school. Not just any guy, but Mike (Curt Hansen), “jock, football, prom king runner-up,” he explains. “But you know what I mean.”

Across the stage, Mike stands by an old dresser, his 1993-style wireless phone in his hand, struggling to come to terms with his feelings for Will. That’s all Girlfriend really is, just these two kids awkwardly falling in love to the strains of Sweet’s overwrought pop ballads and saccharine anthems, performed by music director Julie Wolf and her band situated upstage. Between the boys is a love seat, the focal point of David Zinn’s spare though adequately accommodating set.

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The love seat frequently functions as the front seat of Mike’s car, where they have their first date at a drive-in watching Evangeline, a dopey Hollywood movie about a nun who’s really a cop, who’s really a superhero, who’s really an alien. Mike is monosyllabic as Will chats about a woman he used to know who may or may not have been a nun. Nothing much happens in the scene, but in the subtext everything is happening and the audience knows it.

Step by step, this pair of innocents move toward admitting to themselves and each other that this ain’t just two dudes hanging out. That tension underlies every scene in the play, drawing the audience inexorably into Almond’s wafer-thin narrative put to Waters’ mostly static staging. These are just two of the reasons Girlfriend shouldn’t work. But Waters’ ability to balance a loaded subtext against minimal movement enables his actors to underplay the fact that they’re falling in love. Doing so, they keep the audience leaning in, waiting for that first kiss.

Will is comfortable with his homosexuality, whereas Mike is only starting to come to terms with his. Will is chatty and expressive, where Mike confines his conversation to as few words as possible. But so much comes through the pair’s awkward body language, halting exchanges and insanely long pauses that words are frequently beside the point.

As Will, Bach captures the quiet, confused adolescent, growing up gay in rural Alliance, Neb. Bullied in high school, he makes himself content hiding away in his room. There’s a sense that an inherent wit and playfulness have remained uncultivated in him so that he might fit in easier. Bach has a thin voice and wavers a bit in his early numbers with Hansen, but the two deliver in charming low-key fashion. While Bach originated his role, Hansen is new to the production. He has a seasoned stage voice, and his execution of Joe Goode’s few choreographed pieces demonstrates a flair for movement. Artfully traversing the broader arc of the two, from a confused and stifled boy to a confident young man, Hansen goes from monosyllabic to polysyllabic as Mike emerges from the closet.

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There’s a place for them — the state capitol, Lincoln. That’s where Mike is going to study medicine, not because he actually cares to, but because his father is a doctor. This means the clock is ticking. And about that first kiss — it doesn’t come until an hour in. By the time they finally tumble into bed, summer’s over.

Even at a scant 90 minutes, Girlfriend is too long, and it’s pretty clear Almond and company haven’t figured out how to end the show. The question is will Mike and Will act on their feelings, not will they spend the rest of their lives together? Once the relationship is consummated, they have to deal with the question of whether they'll see each other again. It's an incidental issue that could be left open or not, but either way it should be resolved in a single line, not an added scene and a half.

That is to say it’s not a perfect show. Just like your first kiss was not a perfect kiss. Like Girlfriend, it was probably sweet and thrilling, and maybe a little messy, but also irresistible.

Cast: Ryder Bach, Curt Hansen
Director: Les Waters
Book: Todd Almond
Music and lyrics: Matthew Sweet
Set and costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Jake Rodriguez
Music director: Julie Wolf
Choreographer: Joe Goode
Presented by Center Theatre Group