There is no girlfriend in "Girlfriend," the musical based on the songs of Matthew Sweet that is currently having its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
And that is the point, of course. Todd Almond's transposition into drama of 11 of Sweet's songs focuses on the same-sex version of teenage attraction: in this case the relationship between two young men, both just graduated from the same Nebraska high school in 1993.
Will (Ryder Bach) is funny and self-deprecating, someone who has been terrorized by his peers because of his gayness; Mike (Jason Hite) is the football star whose gradual acceptance of his own sexuality provides the play's trajectory.
Berkeley Rep had a huge success earlier this season with "American Idiot," a play based on the Green Day album of the same name. And last season, there was "Passing Strange" which, like "American Idiot," enjoyed Broadway acclaim. "Girlfriend," like its predecessors, uses music integrally, but the result in the case of "Girlfriend" is both gentler and less groundbreaking.
Bach and Hite ably convey various aspects of teenage angst - the uncertainties and insecurities, peer pressure and struggle for self-definition. Under Les Waters' direction, their performances are balanced and well-meshed. Still, the roles are underwritten and the actors work hard to overcome the predictabilities of the plot and the centrality of Sweet's emotion-packed lyrics, performed by four onstage musicians - Julie Wolf, Shelley Doty, Jean DuSablon and ieela Grant.
David Zinn's set is minimal and the musicians, performing in a wood-paneled rec room, are not all visible from some seats. Still, the trueness of the actors' performances and the force of the band's renditions of Sweet's music make time travelers of us all.
"Girlfriend" will continue through May 9.