Frank Simons, left, and David Allen Jones in "Bobby and Matt" now at Grove Theater Center in Burbank. (Photo by David Darwin / October 19, 2010)

I commend the Grove Theater Center for putting on works as challenging as "Bobby and Matt." Kevin Cochran's exciting new play about two friends who endure war, personal hardship and love over the course of a lifetime, is just one of many new works the theater company is showcasing under its New Play Initiative. Told through letters of correspondence, "Bobby and Matt" is a complex, and at times sobering story, about two men from different upbringings, the challenges they face and their undying commitment to one another.

It's the late 1950s and Bobby and Matt are young boys. The notes they pass in grade school reveal the men they will become. Matt comes from a strict military family, and moves around a lot, while Bobby's mother is a serial divorcee.

"I think my mom has a thing for coaches," Bobby writes, after his mother marries the school's wrestling instructor.

It's clear that Bobby (Frank Simons) has little interest in girls, and when Matt (David Allen Jones) gives him a ride home one night after he gets drunk, Bobby admits how he "enjoyed being alone in the car" with his best friend. It's one of the first times Bobby reveals he's not like other boys.

As the young Bobby matures, he learns to accept that he's different and struggles over whether he should come out to Matt, who's completely oblivious. For a stage actor, it must be quite a task to act while doing nothing more than sitting on a barstool and reading from a stack of papers. Yet forSimons, who has done some professional work as a voice actor, it was never a question on whether he was experiencing pain, happiness or even defeat.

"I didn't think you'd push me off Stoney Rock again," Bobby laments, while coming out, his voice reduced to a hushed mumble. He's referring to the time Matt playfully pushed him off a rock when they were boys. At that time there were no hard feelings. This time around, Bobby may never forgive his best friend.

Jones successfully plays the role of a straight and narrow military man, who manages to repress whatever urges he might have for Bobby. But Jones can be too military at times, which diminishes whatever real emotion he has later on. When Bobby is injured amidst the gunfire at Kent State, Matt tries to reach him. Matt's been stationed in Vietnam and writes with desperation, but the tone in his voice is flat and unconvincing. Sure he wanted to know if his friend is OK but from the sounds of it, Matt may as well have been asking his mother what she had planned for dinner.

But when Matt cracks a joke about the irony of the situation, seeing that he's the one fighting a war, Jones seemed more lively and personal. It was reminiscent of the lightheartedness the two boys possessed while passing notes to one another in class. The content may have been childish and insignificant, but Jones looked more at ease while allowing his playfulness to shine.

Playwright Cochran clearly wanted to include both men in as many historical events as possible. I found it a little far-fetched that Bobby would have been wounded in the Kent State massacre. But Cochran includes this event, as well as several others, as mere sidesteps in an otherwise rich and heartwarming story.

James Famera is a freelance arts critic based in Los Angeles.

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INFOBOX:

What:"Bobby and Matt" by Kevin Cochran

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday until Oct. 30

Where: Grove Theater Center, 1111-b W. Olive Ave., Burbank

Tickets: $20, and $15 for students, seniors and Burbank residents

Contact: Tickets can be purchased at http://www.gtc.org, or call (818) 528-6622