Litmus test 

Chemistry Lab

By Ben Alexander
Directed by Jerry Less
WorkShop Theater Company
312 West 36th St., 4th fl. (212/695-4173)
Equity showcase (closes Mar. 15)
Review by Jenny Sandman

Adolescence is hard enough when you're straight, but when you're gay and living in a small town, it resembles the seventh circle of Hell. Chemistry Lab takes place in 1978 New Hampshire, and Adrian Beane (Ivan Sandomire) is a shy, nervous loner, a social outcast who is picked on and beaten up constantly. Because he's a loner, everyone assumes he's gay. Bobby Miller (Matthew Armstrong) is the school golden boy -- class president, star quarterback, captain of the baseball and basketball teams. He teams up with Adrian for a school project, and a strange friendship ensues -- one of sexual experimentation and, eventually, discovery.

Bobby, though he wouldn't admit it under torture, is bi-curious, and thinks Adrian would be a willing lab partner, so to speak. To their mutual surprise, they both enjoy it, and the experimentation continues. When Bobby realizes he's fallen in love with Adrian, he quickly ends the affair, and flees to his ex-girlfriend, Tammy (Anne Richardson). Adrian is more comfortable with his newfound identity, and comes out to his social-studies class, though he keeps Bobby's involvement a secret. When Adrian gets beaten up at the Winter Carnival dance, Bobby is torn, but keeps his distance. When the school ostracizes Adrian, Bobby is forced to end their uneasy friendship as well. Finally, at their graduation party, Adrian gets drunk and spills his love to Bobby in a not-so-private setting -- with disastrous consequences.

Chemistry Lab is a tender, truthful play, but it's also a chilling play, made more so by the razor-sharp insights into the plight of adolescence. Though it is always tricky writing about the landmines of the teenage heart, Ben Alexander has gotten it exactly right -- from the braggadocio of the football jocks to the giggly vanity of the popular girls to the shaking and stuttering of the geeky misfit. And it was brilliantly acted. Armstrong was the stereotypical jock, cocky around his peers, bragging about Tammy's "sweet ass," but knowing deep down he is in love with Adrian, and terrified when Adrian comes out. Sandomire as Adrian was shy and stuttering, but he found his way to an uneasy acceptance of himself, growing into the beginnings of self-confidence. Both played the pull between adult emotions and childlike fear and insecurity perfectly. The rest of the small cast (Regina Taufen, Peter Esmond, and L.B. Williams) were utterly convincing as teenagers.

The writing and the acting were the two gems of this production. The set (Megan Cilley) was very 1978, right down to Bobby's Star Wars poster, and the costumes (Alexandra Devin) were equally accurate. The lights (Spencer Chandler) and sound (Bradford West) left something to be desired, and the direction was a bit cluttered, with too many clunky transitions. It could have used some streamlining. But the production values and direction in no way detracted from the play as a whole. Chemistry Lab is a rare find, and an apt reminder of just how terrifying adolescence -- and self-discovery -- really is.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman