10446351_10152496000049479_5211191670306806957_n What is it that turns one alienated teenager into a mass murderer while another might opt to grit it out in hopes of an “It Gets Better” post-high school future?

These questions lie at the heart of Gregory Crafts’ enlightening, affecting 2009 drama Friends Like Us, back for a repeat engagement at Hollywood Fringe 2014.

Geek-in-black Garrett (Scott Sharma), wrestler-nerd Bryan (Sean Casey Flanagan), and angry punk chick Diz (Sammi Lappin) are a trio of inseparable best friends for whom the Medieval fantasy role-play game “Haven” offers weekend escape from their high school hell—that is until in-crowd cheerleader Nicole (Parissa Koo) throws a wrench into their friendship with ultimately fatal consequences.

Nicole’s breakup with Garrett’s number one nemesis, Bryan’s wrestling teammate Jesse (Lee Pollero), has the perky cheergirl turning for comfort to the safer, gentler Garrett, and though it takes a while for the duly doubtful out-crowder (and for us as well) to begin trusting in Nicole’s motives, the two do become a couple, news which sits not at all well with either an enraged Jesse or a dejected Diz, whose unrequited longings for Garrett have gone too long unnoticed.

Craft’s script (and Corwin Evans’ sound design) make abundantly clear Garrett’s daily hell of verbal taunts and physical attacks that can turn a teenager’s rage outward and lead to violent retribution.

Friends Like These could benefit from fewer-but-longer scenes. As is, it feels overly fragmented, with too many blackouts and the too-frequent moving about of furniture and props.

Still, under Wendy Gough Soroka’s assured direction, Lappin, Flanagan, Koo, Pollero, and Sharma all deliver intense, effective performances, with a particularly impressive Sharma’s touching take on Garrett the evening’s standout.

Mike Berger’s lighting design and Sean Fitzgerald’s fight choreography help elevate this Theatre Unleashed production above standard barebones Fringe fare.

Though no two school shootings are alike, and Friends Like These gives us only one of them, it succeeds at the very least in helping us understand what might provoke a tormented adolescent to do the unthinkable, and the years between its 2009 premiere and now have only made it more relevant.

–Steven Stanley
June 17, 2014