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Boy Gets Girl Gets Creepy

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl: the classic model for romantic comedy and drama. According to Rebecca Gilman, it's also the prescription for obsessive stalking. Gilman, an up-and-coming playwright with a penchant for issue-oriented suspense, has served up a hy perrealistic portrait of one woman's nightmare in the aptly titled Boy Gets Girl, which recently opened at GableStage in Coral Gables. Boy gets girl all right, and while the getting isn't pretty, it sure is gripping.

The story begins where many of us have been: on a blind date. Theresa Bedell, a hard-charging magazine writer in New York, figures she needs to jump-start her stalled love life so she agrees to meet Tony, the friend of the sister of a friend. Tony seems like a nice-guy softie, kinda shy and awkward. But Theresa is an edgy, brainy type, and there's something about old Tone that doesn't seem right, so she cuts the rendezvous short after one beer. Trouble is, Tony doesn't get it. He asks her for a dinner date, and she agrees, reluctantly.

They meet at a dark place in his neighborhood. As he casually plies her with questions about her life, Theresa becomes increasingly uncomfortable and finally calls off their relationship before it begins. But again, Tony isn't paying attention. He calls her at work, and when Theresa stops taking his calls, he shows up at her office. When she rebukes him, he sends flowers in apology, then more flowers to apologize for sending flowers. While Theresa tries to concentrate on her busy professional life, it slowly begins to dawn on her that this guy is not going to go away. Her coworkers are concerned, but they can't offer help; neither can the police as Theresa's world becomes increasingly darker and scarier.

The role of Theresa is a remarkable one, at once specific and universal. You have either been or known or dated or married this woman. Gilman invests in her the contradictions of real life. She's book smart, not street smart, eloquent at times, then tongue tied. She's effective, then bumbling. She's attractive, annoying, straightforward, prevaricating, brave, frightened, and very, very human. It is sufficient to say that all these colors can be found in Pamela Roza's vivid portrayal. Each step in Theresa's slow descent into fear and loathing is crystal clear. At one point Theresa is on the phone to a realtor while opening yet another unwanted letter from Tony. The look of shock and horror on Roza's face as she reads his message is indelible. She is luminous in every scene she's in, and when she's off -- which is rare -- the production dims noticeably.

As is now the norm for GableStage shows, the acting ensemble turns in superior work, though the performers are hampered by rather typical roles. As Tony, David Cirone is unnerving but doesn't seem to reach the level of insanity that the text suggests. When he trashes Theresa's apartment, the level of malevolence described later is frightening. Cirone plays the wordless interlude in a more casual, understated way. Barry Tarallo is entirely watchable as Theresa's sympathetic boss; so are Mark Swaner as her sympathetic coworker and Autumn Horne as her ditsy secretary. The production also features George Schiavone as a rough-and-tumble exploitation-film producer whose forthright obsession with women's breasts at first infuriates Theresa before the two effect an off-beat friendship. Schiavone and Miriam Kulick, as a no-nonsense police detective, don't mine their characters for much detail or complexity, but their work is solid nonetheless.

Playwright Gilman took on this project as a commission from the Goodman Theatre of Chicago, which led to a subsequent staging at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. The GableStage production is the play's third, followed by a London staging at the Royal Court. Gilman has also fared well with other works involving social themes. Her Glory of Living, a play about thrill killing, will be produced in New York later this season, again by the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Gilman's success is understandable. She's a wiz with characterization and brittle humor, but her command of ideology doesn't match her other skills. The essential premise of Boy Gets Girl -- that the standard romantic ideal is sick, not ideal -- is bracing and provocative. It speaks to the underlying dysfunction that afflicts both bad-boy Tony and his intended victim, Theresa: narcissism. Both are isolated, without close relationships; both are anhedonic, secretive, and self-absorbed.

But to this Gilman tries to strap on a layer of third-hand feminist theory: that socially endorsed objectification of women, the alleged male obsession with big breasts, and the relentless social subjugation of women, are responsible for the stalking phenomenon. Oh, really? That might be made to work when straight men stalk straight women, but how does Gilman explain what happens when it's the other way around, or when gays stalk gays or lesbians, lesbians? Well, she doesn't, and the play suffers. But even with these inconsistencies, the ideas here are better served by the dramatics, not the rhetoric. Too many speeches and scenes are given over to half-baked ideas and arch pronouncements. Outraged that a colleague might write an article about her experience, Theresa roars, "I am not theoretical; I am real!" Maybe, but does she have to talk like that? The play also has some structural problems, notably a second act that suffers from a realistic but dramatically weak finale.

Both the play and director Joseph Adler's topflight production take their inspiration, it seems, from television and film. The many short scenes jump from location to location like a movie, the musical score feels cinematic, and the cast of characters reads like a sitcom. Adler has enhanced this sense by going with Lyle Baskin's large multileveled TV-show-style set that allows the action to jump around from place to place -- from Theresa's spare, spacious office to her spare, styleless apartment and back again. The production also is aided by Daniela Schwimmer's realistically detailed costumes and Jeff Quinn's inventive lighting. A special nod goes to sound and music designer Nate Rausch, who follows up his deliciously eerie sound score for Mad Cat theater's Portrait with superlative work here. From dark, driving blues to discordant jazzy urban riffs to the final sequence of jungle drums, Rausch really creates an ominous New York of the ear, adding a building sense of menace.

As ever, Adler's direction is taut, clean, and evocative. You can really feel the walls looming around Theresa as the story progresses, and the focus stays on her story rather than on the production techniques that support it. That has long been Adler's style: Find the key beats of the story; stage them effectively; give them a sensual texture of place, mood, and pace; and then get out of the way of the actors.

GableStage audiences are fortunate to have Adler on the job. He takes on intense, difficult material and scores repeatedly, knocking hits out of the park on a regular basis. But maintaining such a level of consistency and quality is a difficult task, a high-wire act even with unlimited resources, which GableStage decidedly lacks. I hope Adler's audiences, and the South Florida community in general, realize what a rare gift they have in him.

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Ronald Mangravite

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