Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

While it won’t cramp the style of those Minions or radically affect the box office for Ant Man, my choice for the entertainment treat of the summer is Todd Almond and Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Almond’s smart and deceptively simple chamber musical uses the music from Sweet’s 1991 album of the same title to musicalize the summer of 1993 in a small Nebraska town.This summer will change the lives of two disparate young men, Will (Ryder Bach) and Mike (Curt Hansen).

Will is a teenage pariah whose nonconformity attracts derision from most of his peers.  While probably not declaring himself out of the closet, Will is the kind of young man who can’t, or won’t, hide his nature. When first glimpsed, he is gleefully tossing his books, notes, and backpack into the trash can, overjoyed that the nightmare of high school is finally over.

Mike is, on the surface, Will’s polar opposite. Popular, from a prominent family and a baseball star, Mike has been hiding his sensitive, creative side. And he’s coming to terms with his own sexual identity. Desperate to connect, he initiates a tentative friendship with a surprised and somewhat wary Will. Mike’s gift to Will of a mix tape moves quickly to an unexpected serenade over the telephone.

If the idea of the Prom King courting the resident high school geek sounds like the wishful thinking of a thousand romance novels, Almond’s script embraces the cliché and freshens it with a healthy dose of reality. Inexperience and fear make for an excruciatingly slow courtship, and this is where Almond shines. His hesitant, pause-filled dialog tells us all we need to know about Mike’s taciturn nature and Will’s nerves. Gay teens in 1993 had few role models. We laugh in recognition as they haltingly fumble toward intimacy and, when they finally kiss, the entire audience exhales in relief.

Under Les Waters’ perceptive and sensitive direction, each scene crackles with vitality. He skillfully guides the actors into performances that respect the eloquence of silence as well as the lines. Watch as he uncovers every bit of comedy and longing in those silences during the first of several “dates” the boys endure at the drive-in. Or the devastating moment in which the boys, innocently sitting on the grass, are called “faggots” by someone in a passing car. In the silence that follows, we feel Will’s pain and embarrassment. We also see a new reality opening up for Mike, who has never been on the receiving end of such abuse.

Ryder Bach’s Will is gawky and endearing, while Curt Hansen is the essence of jock charisma. They sing the score well, and they have terrific chemistry. But what is most impressive is the effortless give and take they bring to every scene, lending each moment the impression of being newly minted.

David Zinn’s carefully curated scenic design and costumes offer just enough to create a time capsule to the early 90’s, while Julie Wolf and her vibrant female band make a terrific sound in their upstage rumpus room.

I saw the original production at Berkeley Rep in 2010 and liked it then. But this new version feels leaner and more concentrated. The ending still feels a little too pat: the only moment where convention is allowed to trump reality. But that’s a niggling complaint when every other moment shines with theatrical life.

Kirk Douglas Theatre    July 19 – August 9, 2015