'Girlfriend' Gives Hope for the Future State of Romantic Relationships and Love

Photo: <b>I wanna hold your hand.</b> 'Girlfriend' combines music and a minimal set to focus on the story of two gay teens.
Catherine Shyu/Photo
I wanna hold your hand. 'Girlfriend' combines music and a minimal set to focus on the story of two gay teens.

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Berkeley Rep’s poignant ‘Girlfriend&rs...

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During an early scene in "Girlfriend," Will and Mike, two gay teenagers, sit in the front seat of an invisible pickup truck, watching the non-existent drive-in movie screen that stands somewhere above the Berkeley Rep audience. Will begins to talk, rambling until trailing off. Mike, seated an arm's length away, finally responds. "Thin arms," he says, staring at the screen, "I like thin arms that make me think of spiders' arms." Silence ensues.

Is first love really this awkward? I suppose if it is, we manage to block out the memories. But if courtship is precarious between a boy and a girl, whose amorous intentions are obvious or at least socially acceptable, imagine budding love for a pair of closeted prospective lovers, whose mutual attraction goes unspoken for weeks.

Of course, some people don't need to imagine this scene. They've lived it. But assuming that art imitates life to some recognizable degree, there's something the rest of us can learn from a play like "Girlfriend," which presents, without gimmick, the first romance of two young gay men.

But "Girlfriend" isn't a sociology lesson. It's a work of fiction, and its story is simple. Will (Ryder Bach) and Mike (Jason Hite) meet at the end of high school, exchange mix tapes (literally, tapes-it's the early '90s) and begin a tentative summer romance. Witness all the familiar moments-the torturous phone calls, the near-kisses, the general uncertainty and awkwardness.

In many ways, "Girlfriend" is so steeped in cliche you almost feel like you could have written it yourself.

You couldn't have. The script walks the tight rope between wittiness and realism; the banter is clever and funny but just pedestrian enough to make you think you've heard exchanges like it before. Will and Mike are ordinary in that way that's actually extraordinary and cinematic. They live in Nebraska, in a small town on the edge of the prairie. Mike is the eminent all-American (strong jaw, blond hair, baseball) but his life is not all that it seems (he doesn't even really like baseball). Cue overbearing father, sexual confusion and peer pressure that necessitates his creation of a fake girlfriend. Will is nerdy, independent, musical, targeted by bullies and comes from what is commonly known as a broken home. Their kinship is so unlikely that they seem like an obvious match.

The staging of "Girlfriend" is endearingly minimal. There's little movement, few props, only two characters. Except for the pair's tendency to break into spontaneous crooning, it looks like real life. Or rather, like real life in the movies, where real life is contrived but still close to our hearts.

It would be accurate but also unfair to note that the play would be basically unwatchable if instead of Will and Mike it was Will and Michelle. We can only hope that sometime in the future this will be the case, that a re-staging of "Girlfriend" will be viewed as inexcusably boring. Two awkward 18-year-old boys falling in love. "How lame, how unoriginal," future audiences might say.

But in 2010, it means something. Being gay in high school must be unimaginably difficult, an experience most people will never really be able to understand. And yet if "Girlfriend" has a message, it would seem to be that some emotions are universal. Love, writer Todd Almond suggests, is love.

It would be irresponsible not to mention the music. Taken from Matthew Sweet's 1991 album, also called Girlfriend, the songs are catchy and corny and grunge-poppy, but they're also pace-changing representations of the feelings that Will and Mike share but can't seem to express in any other manner. The four-piece rock band played from an imitation orchestra pit which lay behind the stage and was decorated like a suburban basement. Despite his preppy looks, Jason Hite's bold voice make him a formidable frontman.

He and Ryder Bach are truly great in a play that, unusual for a romantic drama, requires more subtlety than effusion. Hite conveys teenage angst with a nervous scrunching of his face, while Bach maintains a delightful cynicism during his diary-like soliloquizing.

For all of the stock elements in "Girlfriend," the one thing that feels real and original is the chemistry between these two. Their performances, like the production as a whole, are refreshingly earnest. That's a rare quality in theater these days, where cynicism seems to be the norm.

Therein lies the irony, that by staging an aesthetically conservative take on the classic love story, director Les Waters took a risk. In its unadorned enthusiasm, "Girlfriend" recalls the era of classic musicals, days when a gay love story must have seemed like an impossibility.


Nick Moore is the lead theater critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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