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Matthew Sweet’s post-divorce power-pop masterpiece Girlfriend was almost a generation old back in 2010, when Todd Almond—a busy playwright/composer/lyricist who adapts Homer and Shakespeare when he isn’t teaming up contemporary dramatists like Sarah Ruhl and Adam Bock—decided to retcon half its songs (plus one each from a pair of other Sweet albums, 1993’s Altered Beast and 1995’s 100% Fun,) into a modest two-hander about a couple of boys falling in love the summer after high school. There’s nothing the least bit wrong with this sort of appropriation, of course. We each take whatever the writer of a song that moves us was on about and find some way to shoehorn it into the narrative of our own lives. That’s how pop music works.
Why did Almond choose this album? I couldn’t tell you. Maybe because it and its most famous song are both called “Girlfriend,” and Mike (Lukas James Miller), the popular, athletic, college-bound, slower-to-make-peace-with-his-sexual-identity half of this burgeoning couple, keeps claiming he has one. Will (Jimmy Mavrikes) makes no such boasts about his love life or any other part of his life. He seems to be out, but that’s about all we ever learn about him. His personality—shy, ironic—is the inverse of Mike’s, and that’s all.
Almond could’ve picked any set of love songs for these two to sing to one another. Borrowing Girlfriend requires him to jump through a bunch of hoops. He’s set the show in Nebraska in the early ’90s (Girlfriend-the-record came out—er, was released—in 1991), which is apparent only from the fact the two boys talk via landline phones and Will has a stack of VHS tapes on his dresser.
Apparently because Almond wanted to use “Evangeline”—a song Sweet wrote about a comic book character (“a nun who is really a cop who is really an alien” in Will’s shaky description) whose adventures bounced among three different publishers throughout the 1980s, all of them long extinct—Almond imagines that “Evangeline” has been adapted into a movie, one that Mike invites Will to see at the drive-in with him, night after night after night. (Credit sound designer Ryan Hickey with convincing me, briefly, that this film existed. I realized only later that it was the 1996 Pamela Anderson-starring indie comic book adaptation Barb Wire, set in dystopian 2017, that I was remembering.) I can’t decide whether Will’s throwaway line venting frustration at “comic book movies” is a smart joke or a lazy one, given that they were only coming out at the rate of about one every three years back then. But having these two shy fellas sit together in the dark together trying to find their courage is a perfectly serviceable device. A coda set several months after their sensitively depicted first encounter is clunky as hell.
What matters, I suppose, is that Miller and Mavrikes are both believable and likeable. They sing Sweet’s sublime songs reasonably well, although I enjoyed hearing the four-piece all-lady band (who remain visible at the back of the stage throughout the show) play them more. Bandleader and keyboardist Britt Bonney also sings occasionally, and hearing a woman interpret these songs is fair trade for the fact that we don’t get the Sweet/Robert Quine-or-Richard Lloyd dueling-guitars riffage that made their original versions so indelible. Almond sure picked a loud record to mold into a story this quiet.
At Signature Theatre to June 10. 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$98. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.