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What's in a name? Amid the circle of gay friends cavorting in Manhattan circa 1969–99 in writer-director Scott Edward Smith's dramatization of Ethan Mordden's Buddies Cycle book series, there's a tendency to fixate on monikers, as each man seeks his true identity. The youthful-spirited Little Kiwi (David Clark Smith) retains a nickname attached to him during childhood. A restless Anglo cowpoke from South Dakota (Jon Woodward) decides to call himself Carlo. The surname of the upscale yuppie Dennis Savage (Mark Davis) is always respectfully included when his pals refer to him. This practice epitomizes the characters' struggles to discover how each fits into a rapidly evolving subculture that vehemently fought for its rights at the groundbreaking Stonewall riots in 1969 and has faced myriad challenges ever since. The adaptation would benefit from a stronger sense of shifting time periods and the sweeping social transitions that form the story's backdrop. Yet it succeeds as a funny and heartrending portrait of gay men aching for emotional fulfillment in a subculture trying to move past its legacy of clandestine promiscuity.

Writer-director Smith's episodic chronicle of lustful rites of passage and edgy friendships is graced with a solid ensemble. Hutchins Foster plays the cheeky narrator, Bud, giving a creditable portrayal, but he should tone down the character's effeteness. Woodward is splendid as the stud who has trouble reconciling his macho image with the sensitive sweetheart lurking inside. As a middle-aged Midwesterner coming to the big city to express his long-suppressed desires, TL Kolman invests his role with insight and humor. Davis gives a strong performance as the aging playboy with a weakness for younger boyfriends. Smith is amusing and endearing as Little Kiwi, who becomes an older-brother figure for Cosgrove (the engaging Ronnie Alvarez), the latest wayward "twink" to join the coterie. Daniel Kirsner is likewise effective as a supposedly straight trick with a secret past. The fast-paced dramedy aims for something less gut-wrenching than such gay-themed ensemble classics as Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band and Terrence McNally's works. It delivers a refreshing summertime tonic sprinkled with simple yet resonant truths.

"Buddies," presented by Dennis R. Nollette with and at the Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Aug. 12-Sep. 18. $20-25. (323) 957-1884.

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