By Patrick Hurley
The awkwardness of first love is sweetly and nostalgically captured in the Actors Theatre of Louisville Production of Girlfriend, playing now through August 9 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Featuring music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet, and a book by Todd Almond, Girlfriend is bittersweet and nostalgic, and a painfully funny examination of two young men living in a small Nebraska town in 1993, coming to terms with their feelings for each other.
Will (Ryder Bach) is a sort of typical high school musical theater nerd, who at the start of the show is celebrating his last day of high school ever. He’s also a little on top of the world because star athlete, prom king runner-up Mike (Curt Hansen) talked to him at school that day. Just as he’s retelling the story of how Mike approached him and actually spoke to him, Will’s phone rings, and Mike is calling him. Mike invites him to go to a Drive-In movie with him, and the two spark a friendship. A friendship that is riddled with innuendo, furtive glances, and those moments when the space between the two becomes almost nonexistent and actual physical contact is achieved—however briefly. All of these moments play out with a deliberate tension, like a slow intake of breath, that holds, and lingers…waiting for the satisfying exhale. And both of these actors exist inside of these moments, inside of this world compellingly.
Will deals with his feelings for Mike through awkward internalized expressions. He is always side-glancing, smiling, or longing to say something but just can’t quite, thus revealing precisely his feelings. Then of course there’s his actual dialogue, when Mike, for example, asks Will if he can confess something to him, Will’s response, an almost guttural “oh my God,” elicits howls of laughter from the audience.
We’re all so well aware of Will’s feelings for Mike, and as the underdog, we’re desperately rooting for him . Mike, on the other hand is much more guarded, and keeps bringing their conversations back to his girlfriend, who lives in another town. Each time he mentions her, the tension between the two guys diminishes, it is the unsatisfying exhale, and Will’s hopeful expressions turn somewhat painful.
The isolation of these two characters, the only two in the play, is a wonderful parallel to the isolation that they feel in their lives. It heightens the desperation of being different, of feeling like you’re the only person going through what you’re going through. But also, it plays upon the notion of falling in love, and believing that you and that other person are the only people in the world. There is a beautiful scene the two young men share on the hood of Mike’s car, under the stars, that brings into focus the isolation and complete oneness we can feel with someone we’re in love with.
This production plays out like an awkward and wonderful first kiss. It’s endearing and sweet, and ultimately impactful. The set is simple, beyond simple, a few pieces of furniture separate Mike and Will’s bedrooms, and an old couch serves as Mike’s car. And this seems to not only allow for the isolation of these two characters to be heightened, but it also separates this musical from the traditional. It has an Indie-rock vibe going on, or something in the way of an arthouse film. It’s not conforming to any genre, it’s simply telling a story. There is also a band upstage in a paneled room. The 4 woman band, led by conductor Julie Wolf is a great addition to the style of this play, and added a nice theatrical element. Plus the music is great. Based on the songs of Matthew Sweet, the musical numbers in this show are nearly all perfectly placed. Sometimes they do trump up the sweetness of the piece, but they nearly all enhance the nostalgic and exhilarating mood. Director Les Waters is quite masterful with dramatic tension. There are whole scenes without dialogue, where the audience was practically holding our breath in anticipation.
This is also the case, because the two actors are exceptional. As Mike, Curt Hansen exudes charismatic charm. It’s the more difficult of the two parts because he is less forthcoming, and is highly guarded, making him much harder to like. But Mr. Hansen understands this and allows it to be a strength. His infatuation toward Will is a slow burn, it evolves, and with it, so too does the deflation of Mike’s world, and he nails it. He can be distant and inviting, charming and off-putting all at once. His contradictions are manifest by his internalized struggle, and he knows how to allow both to exist at once. And he’s a fantastic singer.
As Will, Ryder Bach is outstanding. He is the perfect embodiment of an awkward youth coming into his own sexual identity. He makes Will’s desire for Mike, the way he pines for him, looks at him, listens to him, every interaction he has with him, completely believable, completely joyous and painful. Letting us the audience in on his affections, we are always aware of every thought he’s having, and we can easily relate to what he’s going through because who hasn’t been there? It is that universal ideal of the perfect love that he holds in his every expression, and only the most cynical among us wouldn’t be desperately hoping that he gets to have that love. There is an honesty in his performance that makes him wonderfully awkward and highly endearing. And when the play throws a little reality into the mix, he commits to those moments just as completely. And because of this, his character arc is beautifully earned.
In the end, this play isn’t perfect. It may strike some as too “cutesy” and others may find it too sentimental. But to use a music metaphor, it strikes a chord, a chord that resonated throughout the theater on opening night. It takes a simple premise, and a familiar trope. Two young gay men—one closeted—and the difficulties they have with falling in love, and with self-acceptance. But what this play does, beyond that, is that it shows the beauty, pain, sweetness, excitement, disappointment, and heartbreak that falling in love carries with it, regardless of sexuality, it’s about what it means to love someone. And while this dances closely to nostalgia, to sentimentality, it seems to know exactly where the line is, and never crosses over it. It only dances close enough to remind some of us of what was. And maybe give hope to others of what might be.
Book by Todd Almond
Music and Lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Directed by Les Waters
July 12-August 9
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd. Culver City, CA 90232