Each of these dramas—well, bare is either a musical or popera—is actually a morality play presented in a high school seting, with bare taking on the evil of homophobia and Friends devoted to the specter of gun violence, although it touts homophobia as a minor secondary theme. In Friends Like These, playwright Gregory Crafts has created an elaborate backstory to explain how five high school students end up in a teen-driven schoolyard massacre.
Although the dramatic machinery of Friends relies on the predictable rivalries and turf wars of stock high school personae—one jock, one cheerleader, two geeks, and one hybrid jock/geek—Crafts has developed his characters sufficiently for the audience to actually care what happens to these young strivers. While the audience roots for moody geek Garrett, played by Scott Sharma, as he rises to become worthy of the unexpected romantic attention from cheerleader babe Nicole, Parissa Koo, Garrett’s female geek sidekick Diz, Sammi Lapin, fuels her jealousy to deceitful and dangerous levels.[php snippet=1]
All of this romantic jousting is cleverly superimposed over the rituals and faux battles of a pseudo-medieval game world called Haven, to which Garrett, Diz and another friend Bryan, Sean Casey Flanagan, are devoted participants. Although much of the plot is propelled by the anger and fisticuffs of Nicole’s spurned jock boyfriend Jesse, played by Wade Wilson, the greater danger to the five friends of Friends Like These is the rage that grows within Diz and drives her to the play’s apocalyptic denouement.
Sharma gave Garrett depth and empathy, slowly and credibly building his self-confidence in pursuit of Nicole, and Koocannily turned this airhead cheerleader into a kinder and gentler teen. Wilson’s bullying, homophobic wrestler could use more swagger, but his fight scenes were sharply realistic. I thought the demeanor of Flanagan’s Wade was too collegiate, but exasperation was his strong point. Lappin’s Diz, an underwritten part to be sure, didn’t display that crescendo of rage that warranted her final scene.
Presented on the bare staging area of the Bread and Salt ex-warehouse with no scenery and minimal but clever props—loved the foam-tipped tubular swords—Director Wendy Gough Soroka focused on swift, clean dramatic strokes to keep this plot roiling. Cast members quickly moved requisite chairs and tables between acts with lightning efficiency, and the choreography of their Haven scenes made me believe Soroka could convincingly stage Lord of the Rings in my living room. Considering the limitations of the space, Mike Berger’s lighting proved surprisingly effective, equal to Corwin Evans’ low-key but eerie enough sound design.
[box] The Los Angeles-based Theatre Unleashed brought this play and The Best of 25 Plays Per Hour to the 2014 San Diego International Film Festival. For more information about the troupe: www.theatreunleashed.com [/box]