Also see Charles' recent review of Movin' Out
Beautiful Thing , playing at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts through August 25th, is a well-crafted revival of the play which was presented at the Famous Door Theatre Company here in Chicago in 1998. It subsequently made its Off-Broadway debut at the Cherry Lane Theatre in NYC for a run from February 14 to June 27, 1999. The original cast has been reassembled here and the production features the original direction of Gary Griffin, whose most recent credits include the critically acclaimed My Fair Lady , also at the Chicago Center, and Pacific Overtures, which played at Navy Pier.
The play, written by Jonathan Harvey who hails from Liverpool, tells the innocent story of two young boys in their teens (Ste and Jamie) who fall in love in a southeast London public housing area in 1985. This "coming of age" comedy traces the growth in their relationship and the lack of compassion and/or understanding from the other central characters: Sandra (Jamie's mother) who works in a pub; Tony, her boyfriend; and Leah, the eccentric young teen who lives next door, has been kicked out of school and is obsessed with Mama Cass. As the play progresses, Ste and Jamie, both students, realize their gay sexual orientation and try to come to grips with it. The play ends with both young men embracing each other and dancing to Make Your Own Kind of Music.
Unfortunately, as written, the play comes off as a diluted version of the first season of Britain's Queer as Folk. Both boys realize the handicaps they face in their personal life - Ste's father,a drunkard beats him and Sandra treats her son like a baby. In addition, Tony serves as a babysitter and Leah constantly nags them with her cynical vision of life, only relieved with strains of Mama Cass coming from her flat. This certainly sounds like familiar territory: no new ideas, no new digs.
The innocence of the two young boys exploring their sexuality is superficially handled. In one scene, they sense their "gayness" and in the following scene, they seem to be mutually bonded together. There is a gap that is needed to develop their characters. Simply going to a gay pub does not reveal what they are thinking and how they are changing. Constant intrusions by other circumstances (Tony and Sandra's relationship, Leah's fixation with Mama Cass) tend to throw the play off focus.
The production has several sensitive moments, but the overall effect is very shallow and tame. I have stayed in Brixton, a rural public housing area in London, but the unattractive set (three flat housing units next to each other in horizontal fashion) hardly provides the look of any squalor or deterioration that these characters must face on a daily basis. The set (also accompanied by a bedroom setting downstage) limits the blocking and gives us a rather uniform view of the action. The direction becomes repetitious with one character entering his/her doorway and is only relieved by a ramp where characters stand to understand their thoughts. The lighting, by Jeff Pines, is harsh and never lets us focus on individual moments which might provide some isolation in the pace of the show. There is a certain "depth" missing in the staging. The show reminds me of Blood Brothers but without the passion.
The acting, fortuantely, is far better. Both Michael Moran (Ste) and Matt Stanton (Jamie) played the parts in 1998 and seem to find the right vulnerability in their roles. However, they seem too old now to play the naive teenagers who fall in love. Susan Bennet (repeating her role as Leah) is too loudish and flamboyant in her role. Kelly Van Kird as Tony offers a pleasant relief that bridges the modest tempest that occurs between the boys and Sandra. Only Kirsten Sahs as Sandra plays her character with any dimension in character. Her role of the struggling mother is charged with plenty of emotional range, and her scene confronting Jamie about his gayness is one full of silent revelation.
Overall, the production is moving but without any tenacity to make it memorable. Beautiful Things is presented at Chicago Center for Performing Arts (CCPA), 777 N. Green Street in Chicago through August 25th. Call the Performing Arts box office at (312)-327-2000 or contact www.famousdoortheatre.org.