'Dear Gabby': Pain of Growing Up

Take a teen to see "Dear Gabby" at the Santa Monica Playhouse and don't be surprised if memories of your own bewildering adolescence come winging back to you.

This unusual theater piece, subtitled "The Confessions of an Overachiever," movingly articulates the loneliness and confusion of growing up "without an instruction booklet."

Alex (Alex Cohen) is a bright 16-year-old who glibly writes the "Dear Gabby" advice column for her school newspaper. Writer's block sets in when Alex begins seeing the letters as more than "a challenge for my semantic prowess" and realizes they represent real people in pain. Pain that she shares, but tries to hide.

Shana (Shana Feste), writes that she can't fit in and has no friends; Liz (Liz Dean) loves Obi (Obi Ndefo) but feels trapped tied to one boy. She can't bring herself to hurt him.

Loren (Loren Fierstein) is anxious about her sister's (Heather Ross) drug use and dependence on drug-using friends, while Aisha (Aisha Wagle) is bothered by her friends' classroom cheating.

Written and directed by Chris De Carlo and Evelyn Rudie, the language of the play is both playful and literate, exploring ethics and societal contradictions with multisyllabic alliteration and plentiful quotations, from Shakespeare to Marshall McLuhan.

Yes, there is a danger of pretentiousness and condescension, but neither is the case here. While not a medium for hard-core concerns, such as gangs, suicide or pregnancy, there is surprising realism in the play's soft approach that tells teens they are not alone.

The gutsy ending is a direct appeal to audience members for a helping hand.

There is little of the self-consciousness that usually tags non-adult productions. The staging, designed for a tiny space, is fluid, and the red, black and white makeup and costumes are striking.

The nine outstanding young actors, ages 12 to 18, students of the Playhouse's Young Professionals theater training program, are from the original 1988 "Gabby" cast that recently toured Canada. Three casts now take the show into schools and are planning more international tours.

At 1211 4th St., Santa Monica, Thursday through Sunday only, 7:30p.m. $12-$15. (213) 394-9779.

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