Girlfriend Is Better

Let’s just get this out of the way at the outset. It’s inevitable that Berkeley Rep’s latest world premiere, Girlfriend, is going to be compared to the one that opened the theater’s season: the Green Day pop-punk opera American Idiot, which opened on Broadway this week to enthusiastic reviews. They’re both new rock musicals based on iconic albums, but while the huge spectacle of American Idiot uses all the songs in order without dialogue and leaves you to glean a vague story between the lyrics and the way the propulsive songs are staged, the much more intimate Girlfriend doesn’t bring some perceived implicit story on Matthew Sweet’s best-known album to life. It’s just the achingly sweet, funny love story of two boys fresh out of high school.

Jason Hite and Ryder Bach in Girlfriend. Photo courtesy of

The songs are presented as preexisting songs: singing along to the radio or belting out that song from the tape one guy made for the other. They never mention Sweet in the play itself—whoever made the songs they’re singing is just referred to as an unspecified “them”—but it’s a smart approach for a beloved power-pop album for which most fans have their own associations.

I’m not one of them, by the way. Though I was in college when Girlfriend came out in 1991, I wasn’t familiar with the record, though I sort of knew who Sweet was and could clearly picture the photo of Tuesday Weld on the record cover. Before seeing the show, when I tried to think of any of Sweet’s songs I kept realizing, “Wait, no, that was Lloyd Cole.”

But boy do those songs sound fabulous in this show, conceived and written by Todd Almond and beautifully staged by Les Waters. It helps that the band, led by music director Julie Wolf on rhythm guitar and keyboards, is fantastic, with Jean DuSablon on bass, ieela Grant on drums and Shelley Doty rocking lead guitar. Wolf and Doty also contribute radiant backing vocals to a number of songs and sing one themselves, holed up behind the action in a basement rehearsal nook right out of Wayne’s World. Backed by a white-painted brick wall with a sunset streak, the thrust stage set by David Zinn, who also did the costumes, looks like it could be one minimally furnished studio apartment but actually represents two rooms: Will’s on the right with just a sleeping bag and boom box on the floor, and Mike’s on the left with a dresser and a couch that doubles as his car without becoming any less couchlike.

The two of them have just graduated from a small-town Nebraska high school, and popular jock Mike came up to nebbishy Will at graduation and said he’d made him a tape and maybe they could hang out sometime—never mind that they’d never spoken before then. “My life has finally become the musical I always suspected it was,” Will says giddily when he tells the story afterward.

The play opens with Will coming home from graduation, renaming that day in June New Year’s Day and throwing his schoolbooks and backpack in the wastepaper bin with relish—then pulling the bag back out and fishing out the tape, which he pops into the boom box and the band kicks in with a burst of sunny pop: “I’ve Been Waiting,” which Mike’s singing in his room on the other side of the stage: “I didn’t think I’d find you perfect in so many ways, but I’ve been waiting and I want to have you.” When Mike calls up to invite Will out to the drive-in, he says, “Hey, I’m listening to the same song!” and sings into the phone. It’s a terrific opening, and it only gets better from there.

At the drive-in they’re so awkward and shy with each other, with closed-in postures and hilariously nervous small talk, that it makes you want to squirm because of how freaking adorable they are. Mike keeps referring to his girlfriend who lives out of town, but in an unconvincing way that makes you think she’s either made up or will soon wish she was.

In one particularly clever touch, the movie they see over and over because Mike can’t think of another excuse to hang out is a fictional action flick based on the actual ’80s comic book Evangeline, about a sexy nun space vigilante, which if you know Sweet’s album means the song “Evangeline” is going to show up sooner or later, albeit later than you might think.

Ryder Bach makes an instantly endearing point-of-view character as Will—sincere but not naive, shy but confident in himself and his sexuality, even if he’s trained not to talk about it. He’s just so giddy about being liked by a cute boy that he just sits back in wonder and lets things unfold at their own pace, relishing every moment. By contrast, the particularly mellifluous-voiced Jason Hite’s Mike is clearly really into Will, but is so uncomfortable about it that you wonder if he’s ever going to do anything about it. They both keep fishing for signals, feigning nonchalance and waiting for each other to make the next move. Everything about the script and the performances conspire to make you really, really like these guys and want more than anything for them to be happy together. Mike’s going away to college, Will hasn’t given life past this summer much thought, and Mike hasn’t even come out to himself, much less his unseen jock friends and belittling dad. (The only characters we see are Mike and Will.) There are any number of reasons why it won’t work out between them, or may never even quite get going, but they do a great job of making you really want it to. With all that going on, Sweet’s songs from Girlfriend plus a few from other albums may be fun and catchy and thoroughly enjoyable, but ultimately they feel like icing on the cake.  The story isn’t just what happens between songs—it’s the aching heart of the experience, and the songs accentuate it the way favorite songs have always accentuated everyone’s personal love stories.

Although crowd-pleasing, the ending feels a little abrupt and unearned, but by that point it scarcely matters. It’s such a bright, funny script, and the sharp performances have made you feel so close to these characters that you feel like you know them and just want nice things to happen to them, plus the upbeat music and terrific band make you really feel and share in their jubilation. On opening night it was tremendously refreshing to hear general cheering at the curtain call like at a rock concert, as opposed to the whoops of a small claque of friends and colleagues that you sometimes encounter. American Idiot may have been one heck of an all-out extravaganza, but in its much more humble and human way, Girlfriend is better.

Through May 16
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #45 of 2010, attended April 14.

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  1. 4 / 23 / 2010 3:40 pm

    I really, really liked this show. I agree that the ending felt a little tacked-on, but that can be fixed easily enough after the run.

    One thing I really enjoyed was how Ryan Bach played Will. When he uttered his first lines, I was a little worried that it was going to be terrible. But instead, it turned out to be the best possible character choice – he felt like a real teenager, some kid who was honestly sharing these fleeting, tender, precious moments of contemplation and yearning and giddiness. I found myself rooting for them, getting that squidgy feeling of love and excitement and yearning for something wonderful to happen – in essence, the show and the actors and the director all conspired to make me feel like I was also experiencing this process of infatuation, falling in love… it was, essentially, what every great romantic comedy hopes to be.


  2. 4 / 23 / 2010 3:46 pm

    Great review, Sam! I loved this play. I saw it on Wednesday. I, too, thought of the comparison to American Idiot, which I also liked. But the subtlety and specificity of this play packed a slightly more powerful punch for me. Thanks for your words.





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