New Ground Theatre's presentation of Rebecca Gilman's stalker drama Boy Gets Girl is sensationally entertaining stuff - the most consistently smartly acted and directed work I've yet seen from this organization - and the production becomes all the more impressive when you realize just how easily it could have proven unbearable.

What had the potential to be a strident and even bullying feminist tract is lightened considerably by director Lora Adams and her uniformly terrific actors; they honor the points Gilman raises, yet instill the author's often-didactic dialogue with humor and recognizable bursts of humanity. Gilman might be preaching, but the performers here are conversing, and they turn Boy Gets Girl into a supremely enjoyable endeavor, one that - thankfully - feels only slightly good for you. (And my opinion about the play's hectoring - for those who might suspect otherwise - has nothing to do with its feminist slant; no matter the play's subject matter or ideology, at the theatre, no one likes being lectured to.)

Gilman's script certainly starts beautifully. Magazine journalist Theresa Bedell (Jamie Em Johnson) half-grudgingly meets a blind date, Tony (Greg Ball), for a drink, and the production's first 10-plus minutes play as a witty getting-to-know-you exercise, with Theresa's blazing confidence a perfect balance to Ball's touching self-deprecation. The actors play this opener extraordinarily well; their banter has the slightly stiff friendliness of two people trying really hard to make a good first impression, and Johnson's body language - her right arm resting on the bar slightly closer to Ball's body than hers - shrewdly suggests a comfort between Theresa and Tony that we later learn is nonexistent. Gilman, to her credit, instills Boy Gets Girl with more humor than you might expect, and this blind-date preamble is sharp and funny - you almost don't want Gilman's material to darken.

But, of course, it must. In a beautifully staged and lit sequence at the date's end, Tony asks Theresa when he can see her next, and when he does, Adams has Ball land under an enjoyably dramatic red light; this guy, we understand, just turned into the devil, and the moment - superbly staged and performed - is a giddy thrill for the audience. Theresa has unwittingly found herself a stalker, and Johnson has made her character so likable - the actress has an early, goofy bit involving her cell phone that puts you in Theresa's corner from moment one - that you're hooked by Boy Gets Girl long before it becomes a stalker drama.

In pretty short order, however, Gilman's script begins to fall apart. So much time is spent establishing Theresa's smarts that the author's point - that intelligent, sophisticated woman can be victimized as easily as anyone else - becomes too clear; when Theresa expounds on the merits of Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells, it's hard to tell if it's the character who's being tiresome or the playwright. A detective (Patti Flaherty) shows up and gives Theresa advice that feels spectacularly wrong-headed - several in Thursday night's audience laughed at the detective's suggestions for Theresa's security, and, considering the level of threat at that moment, were right to do so. The character of a lascivious filmmaker (Jim Seward) is introduced and proves completely, bizarrely tangential to the story; he's used solely to show that men are pigs, yet if you just accept that that's who they are, they can be reasonably amusing pigs.

This last bit, in fact, becomes a running motif, as Gilman stacks the deck too neatly in her heroine's favor; in Boy Gets Girl, men are either walking nightmares, like Tony, or harmless eunuchs. Theresa's boss, Howard (Pat Flaherty), provides a place to stay and a pay raise. Her co-worker, Mercer (Matt Davis), ashamedly recounts his impure thoughts about Theresa to Howard, and later backs down on writing a stalker-themed article for the magazine, telling the offended Theresa, "You're right. Where do I get off?" (As if journalists had no business writing about subjects they haven't experienced personally.) That filmmaker admits that his biggest mistake in life was letting his ex-wife go, and goes on to further pay for his sins against women - he has his colon removed, which isn't exactly the world's subtlest piece of dramaturgy.

And all throughout the play, Gilman's writing is just too glib; the cutesy badinage plays well in the opening scene, and in Theresa's relaxed joshing with her colleagues, but in general, the dialogue, especially when Gilman launches into one of her grad-school-thesis-paper rants, is too clever - Boy Gets Girl occasionally plays like the sitcom version of a Lifetime TV movie.

Or, rather, it would, if Adams and New Ground's performers weren't so damned good.

Johnson, who has been absent from area stages for far too long, makes a delicately shattering transition from cool professional to emotional wreck; this actress, with her natural empathy and heartfelt emotionalism, makes Boy Gets Girl sail. (Few actresses play level-headedness with Johnson's vibrancy.) Ball, with a minimum of stage time, provides an incredibly clever, nuanced portrayal - he makes you like Tony from the start, which makes his emergence as a monster nearly as shocking for us as it is to Theresa. The sincere, touching Davis and Pat Flaherty are both exceedingly charming - Flaherty's readings make Howard sound as if he's in a constant, happy state of high dudgeon - while the divinely comic Seward and Flaherty's real-life wife, Patti, make problematic characters shine through sheer dint of talent; they're wonderfully, unexpectedly eccentric. (Flaherty is like Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson with the Minnesota dialect scraped off.) And as the ditsy office worker Harriet, Tracy Pelzer-Timm is such a radiant dim bulb that the character is almost a valid argument for less education; her occasional appearances in the show are bliss. Lora Adams is clearly a director who loves actors, and they blossom under her inspired guidance.

There isn't one weak - or even close to weak - performance in this bunch. The script might be flawed - oftentimes really flawed - but for the chance to see actors this sensational being directed with such grace, I'd happily sit through far worse scripts than Boy Gets Girl's.

Tickets to Boy Gets Girl are available by calling (563) 326-7862.

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