nytheatre.com review by August Schulenberg
July 9, 2010
Beautiful Thing is a tenderly drawn play by Jonathan Harvey about two teenage boys falling for each other in working class South London. Staged by Nicu's Spoon as part of their 10th season's focus on outcasts, Beautiful Thing is a subtle and detailed look at the complex evolution of romantic and familial love.
In the crowded intimacy of council housing, the popular and athletic Ste hides from his abusive father with his neighbor and classmate, the awkward and picked-upon Jamie. As their friendship deepens into love, Jamie drifts away from his mother, Sandra, a charismatic waitress with a string of lovers who dreams of opening her own pub.
As Sandra struggles to understand her increasingly distant son, her current boyfriend, the aimless artist Tony, fights to keep her affection. Another layer of longing is added to the plot through Jamie's troubled classmate and neighbor, Leah. Expelled from school and obsessed with Mama Cass, Leah takes increasingly provocative steps to win attention.
But plot is a secondary pleasure in Beautiful Thing; the play is interested primarily in the richly drawn characters, particularly Jamie, Sandra, and the charmingly self-destructive Leah. When the play works best, we feel as if we've pulled up a chair to share a beer and watch them banter. Under Michelle Kuchuk's gently nuanced direction, the actors convincingly capture the rhythms of everyday desire, charmingly incarnating the little disappointments and thrills of growing up and moving on.
By embracing the play's strengths, however, the production misses some of the story's darker opportunities. For example, the scene where the seemingly peaceful Sandra erupts in violence against her son is all boil and no simmer. Similarly, the danger of the attraction between the boys is largely unrealized. Part of this stems from the playwright's choice to keep the violence of Ste's father and Jamie's classmates offstage; but part emerges from the production's choice to emphasize the play's quirky charm, and avoid its painful undercurrents.
As a result, the play's climax is underwhelming. Because we don't really believe this Sandra will exile her son, her acceptance of his homosexuality lacks dramatic weight. And that's too bad, because in Julie Campbell and Trip Langley, Kuchuk has a Sandra and Jamie capable of danger and passion.
That passion is also missing in Michael Abourizk's Ste; he captures the character's good-natured simplicity, but misses the troubled resiliency that should make Ste a proper match for the capricious Jamie. Tim Romero's Tony also lacks urgency; making Langley and Campbell's performances sparks trying to catch on wet wood.
Luckily, Rebecca Lee Lerman's Leah is a delight, a raunchy moth flitting her wit against anyone in range. She overcomes the playwright's annoying over-reliance on Mama Cass to create a character who is beautiful because she is not afraid to be ugly.
The small size of the Spoon is a good space for the play, forcing the characters and audience into an uneasy intimacy. Unfortunately, John Trevellini's scenic design resolves the challenge of the play's split locations by leaving the bedroom awkwardly to one side, mixing stage backs and painted flats to create unconvincing block housing. It may have been better to follow the less naturalistic lead of Steven Wolf's lighting design, which smartly conjures the underlying emotions of each scene through a heightened use of color. There are also some jarring prop inconsistencies, like a cigarette that smokes but a joint that doesn't.
Despite these missed opportunities, Nicu's Spoon's Beautiful Thing is never less than engaging, and often lovely. As they continue their run, I hope they will explore the play's darker currents, and risk being ugly in hopes of catching some real beauty.