Everything's right with What's Wrong with Angry?

?Circle Theatre's story of young gay romance has universal appeal

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Perhaps the real truth about gay progress may be measured not in how many blocks the pride parade stretches down Halsted Street but in terms of stuff like how many "cross over" ticket-purchasers are willing to spend $22 to see a play about two teenage boys falling in love with one another. Sure, Will & Grace and Queer Eye For the Straight Guy thrive on prime time. Yet the nitty-gritty of homosexual romance remains "the love that dare not speak its name."

That's just one of the reasons What's Wrong With Angry? at Circle Theatre is so special. Few dramas depict the intense emotional journey of young gay relationships with its warmth, humor and universality. The performances are especially vivid.

For a while there existed the mistaken notion that gay-themed plays had limited appeal, just as African American literature was once designated for blacks only. Certainly audience members who've personally experienced the simultaneous coming of age and coming out of the closet depicted here will easily plug into its themes and conflicts. But you don't have to be gay to relate to rejection, the angst of adolescence or the value of friendship.

The semi-autobiographical drama by Patrick Wilde, a British TV writer and actor, feels derivative. But the strengths of this fine production, in its Midwest premiere at Circle, far outshine its literary shortcomings. Though the initially predictable plot sounds like an R-rated after-school special, the strong acting and Michael Matthews' solid direction keep this show fresh and engaging. The main characters are well fleshed out and believable.

Though he's an outcast in his private all-boys academy in middle class suburban London in 1993, 16-year-old Steven (Jurgen Hooper) manages to be both funny and self-aware. He's fully comfortable with his gayness, claiming he's known about it since he was 11. Steve is both blessed and cursed with a strong sense of pride, yet he can't shout it out to his clueless parents or to his bullying classmates. All Steve wants is to be accepted. Having no options, the lonely youth cruises public toilets where older married guys go for furtive sex. Hooper captures both Steve's strong self-esteem and his extreme vulnerability.

Steve's secret is known only by his best friend, confidante and cover Linda (Kelly Schumann). She's plump, sharp-tongued and equally unpopular. She knows she's everyone's last choice. Some might criticize this character as trite?#34;the flippant, full-figured, ever-generous sidekick of a gay male?#34;yet stereotypes are often deeply rooted in reality. Schumann nearly steals every scene she's in.

The most popular and good-looking boy in Steve's school is John (Tim Rock), a confused, highly closeted jock terrified of his own sexuality. Steve's had a crush on him for some time. John's also the only boy who doesn't bully him.

John leads a double life with a pretty girlfriend (Lindley Gibbs) ever at his disposal. Yet he's drawn to Steve's unshakable self-esteem. He recognizes Steve is braver and stronger. Although John's afraid of his own raging hormones, he is always the first one to make a move.

After a big school dance at which both boys spend the evening staring into each other's eyes while dancing with girls, they end up in Steve's room. Together they begin to make their way through the minefield of gay adolescence. Yet John insists their relationship must be kept absolutely secret. He fears disclosure will jeopardize his athletic career. Rock shows the inner torment of living in denial.

As a supportive yet closeted gay teacher who by British law is legally prohibited from dispensing any information about homosexuality, Vincent P. Mahler is effective with his overly earnest monologues. "If you want love, you have to keep fighting," he advises. "It gets better." For those needing a periodic CliffsNotes type summary, this character clarifies the shame young gays often experience.

Jim Schmid is perfectly pompous as the long-winded headmaster of the English Martyrs Roman Catholic Boys Academy.

Both of Steve's parents are clueless. His homophobic father (Christopher Walsh) assumes his son is sexually involved with Linda. Steve's mum (Barbara Figgins) even advises the girl on preventing pregnancy.

The title, What's Wrong With Angry?, may be unfortunate but it does highlight the idea that getting mad can be a powerful coping mechanism.

The episodic, cinematic feel of this play, with its quick-change scenes, works well due to director Matthews' nimble pacing. Bob Knuth's flexible set resembles banks of school lockers. Sections can quickly open up to suggest multiple locales. Kurt Ottinger's lighting heightens the moods.

Joseph M. Heaton is assistant director and Annie Kasak is stage manager.

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