Friends Like These is loosely inspired by the school shooting at Columbine, an incident that numerous novels, films, and TV episodes have already explored. Unlike previous fictionalizations, however, Gregory Crafts's play softens the sensationalistic aspects of the tragedy. Far from being confrontational, the piece is a gentle drama about the instability of adolescence and the trauma of young love. Although the Columbine angle feels rather forced, the authentic characterizations elevate the show above its concept.
The play tells the story of Garrett, a shy high schooler who spends his days writing in his journal and role-playing with his friends. Through a chance encounter, he strikes up a friendship with Nicole, a popular cheerleader. Their blossoming romance soon alienates Garrett's outcast pals, particularly Diz, a girl who harbors a long-term crush on him. Out of jealousy, Diz teams up with a local jock to hatch a plot to keep Garrett away from Nicole. When this plan goes terribly awry, a cycle of violence begins that leads Nicole to discover some very dark secrets from Garrett's past.
Although this is a familiar storyline, Crafts's dialogue never feels cliched. Where many of the characters could easily come off as dull archetypes, Crafts has instead created a group of unclassifiable and complex teens. Nicole, rather than being a ditz, is a nurturing young woman who genuinely cares about Garrett's unique passions. Garrett, likewise, is far more easygoing and self-aware than a typical mopey loner. And Garrett's nerdy friends, who in a less nuanced play might be portrayed as quirky victims, are instead the most judgmental characters in the story. There are no fixed personas here; only constantly shifting alliances and points of view.
Crafts's attention to detail is reinforced by the superb young cast, who give uniformly charming, understated performances. Matthew Grondin, as Garrett, and Sarah Smick, as Nicole, are perfectly cast as a pair of lost youths who mask emotional wounds with humor and polite reserve. As Garrett's friends, Ryan J. Hill and Jennifer Erin Bailey convey the wild self-delusion that plagues the teenage years. All the actors lend a lived-in, improvisatory atmosphere to the piece, making it hard not to empathize with their characters, even at their most foolish. Sean Fitzgerald directs the play with a flawless sense of timing, allowing for awkward pauses and nervous stammers without slackening the pace.
The affection we feel for these characters is, alas, the very reason the school shooting plot is problematic. In the program, Crafts mentions that the play evolved a good deal in the years he spent writing it. Not surprisingly, then, the violent undercurrent feels like an old idea that is out of place with the rest of the piece. The inevitable conclusion, while it makes sense dramatically, feels somewhat cruel given the tender scenes that precede it.
Nevertheless, Friends Like These is a shrewd study of modern adolescence. Crafts has created a world without easy categories and judgments, where flaws and virtues are inseparable. By inverting the typical high school caste system, the play touches upon the insecurity that contemporary teens face every day: in the American high school of 2010, there is a dime's worth of difference between bullies and friends.