As a lover of theater and of those all-too-rare instances of well-told stories of gay life in unexpected places (aka the “real world” rather than some gay enclave), I was reminded recently that Jonathan Harvey’s play Beautiful Thing ranks right up there for me with Tony Kushner’s Angels In America. Yes, in many ways they couldn’t be more different, but they have one big thing in common. I will never tell anyone not to see a production of them when they come along.
As strange and misbegotten as some productions of Angels In America have been which have crossed my path, the play itself is still brilliant. It resists directors’ bad ideas and valiantly pushes through most layers of crud some people pile on it (often with the best of intentions). Circling back, I must hasten to say that Theater Latte Da’s production of Beautiful Thing now playing at The Lab Theater is neither strange nor misbegotten. It is, in fact, quite lovely. Do I have some problems with it? Sure. Should you still go and see it? Absolutely.
“There’s no such thing as just a kiss.”
Why go? Let’s start with the fact that Beautiful Thing has been kicking around the theater scene since 1993 (and the popular film adaptation since 1996) but despite a thriving theater community and gay community, I can’t recall anyone having produced it here in the Twin Cities before now (theater geeks, feel free to set me straight on that count if I’m forgetting something). So Latte Da and director Jeremy B. Cohen are to be commended simply for doing the play at all. (Even if someone has done it before, I’d argue that, just like Angels In America, we can’t see Beautiful Thing enough either. I’d love to someday get to the point of bemoaning, “Oh dear, not yet another production of Beautiful Thing.” We ain’t there yet. So bring it on.)
But it’s much more than that. Jonathan Harvey’s ode to gay puppy love that springs up unexpectedly in the low-income housing projects of London is a transcendent little modern day fairy tale (no pun intended). The affection that grows between awkward young Jamie (Steven Lee Johnson) and his athletic neighbor Ste (David Darrow) is an almost impossibly fragile thing, like a flower pushing up out of a crack in the concrete. The fact that their love survives in such a potentially hostile environment is a valentine to anyone, gay or straight, who could use a happy ending or two these days.
“Are you gay?”
“I’m very happy. I’m happy when I’m with you.”
If you’re a sucker for a good love story (as I am), watching Darrow and Johnson do their tentative mating dance will cast its gentle spell on you in short order. A sly compliment here, an act of kindness there, a stolen kiss—inching slowly over the boundary between friends and boyfriends. Gay boys—in fact, teenage boys in general—are often their own worst enemies in making their feelings known to someone they care about. They spook easily. The actors get here each shy, self-conscious beat just right. Compliments, too, for not shying away from the intimacy between Ste and Jamie, emotional or physical. You believe these boys are smitten, and half the time have no idea what to do about it. It’s sweet and charming, the fluttering heartbeat of a fine piece of theater. When Jamie tells his mother late in the play “He’s good to me,” you more than believe it. You’ve seen the evidence with your own eyes. They’re a wonderful pair, better and stronger together than apart. The romance between these two characters is the kind of thing that makes me want to see the show all over again, and that’s a rare thing indeed in the theater-stuffed calendar I keep. It’s fun getting swept away by theater like this. Doesn’t happen nearly enough.
“Things just stop like that. Feelings.”
Another thing I love about Beautiful Thing is that it’s not just about love between two boys, but also about love between a mother and a son. Jamie and his mother Sandra (Jennifer Blagen) have a prickly, complicated relationship that often devolves into name-calling and literal brawling. But underneath it all is a powerful bond between two people who are trying to grow up, and trying to find a way to continue to love and support one another even when the other person seems to be impossible to deal with. Anyone who’s ever been on either side of a mother-and-teenage-son argument can recognize themselves when Blagen and Johnson start going at it.
“I work all the hours God sends to keep you in insults.”
Sandra also has to tend with another young man in her life, her latest ardent suitor Tony (Dan Hopman). Tony is always trying just a little too hard to please, and to fit in, and to help. One could argue we should all be so lucky to have a problem like Tony in our lives, but one can also understand Sandra’s resistance. She’s got her ways of getting through life all set up. It’s hard to factor another person into that equation, no matter how well-meaning they are, or how much you might want it.
“When have you ever had to fight for anything in your life?!”
Sandra’s also got a pretty full plate in front of her. Not only is she raising Jamie on her own, she’s taken on Ste as well. Ste’s unseen father and older brother abuse him relentlessly, to the point where Ste often has to retreat to Sandra and Jamie’s place to hide, and heal. Plus, there’s their other next door neighbor, the mouthy Leah (Anna Sundberg), who keeps getting kicked out of school, and has an obsession with the life and music of the late Mama Cass Elliot.
“You can’t wrap yourself up in a dead, fat American git for the rest of your life.”
Both the original play and the movie version make copious use of the music of Mama Cass. Director Cohen and Latte Da have decided to make Cass manifest here in the added role of a musical narrator, sung by powerhouse vocalist Erin Schwab, backed up by a live band (Dennis Curley, Leo Lenander, Andy Carroll and Sheila Earley) tucked underneath the set. The musical interludes with Schwab are meant to act as connective tissue between the scenes, providing moments of meditation. Here’s where we start to address the central struggle of this production, which is that it’s almost too much and too beautiful a thing for the good of the story.
“I hate old people.”
“You like Mama Cass.”
“It’s OK if they’re dead.”
The Lab Theater is cavernous. Michael Hoover’s impressive two-story set is sprawling and massive. In order for Mike Wangen’s lighting design to illuminate all this space, things get bright and cheery indeed. Even the dark of night never really takes hold. And Scwhab even gets one of those tiny headphone mics to be sure we can hear her over the band.
The sense of confinement, of these people living on top of one another, of a hard-scrabble struggle for a decent standard of living on the margins of society—that essential grittiness is missing. We have the flower pushing up, but we don’t have the concrete fighting it. Neither the set nor the costumes really look lived-in.
In the course of the story, Jamie receives two gifts: a new soccer ball from Tony, and a bright red baseball cap from Ste. These two bright shiny new things should look completely out of place in Jamie’s world. They should stand out. But there’s no contrast. Everything here looks bright and shiny. Despite the glum color scheme of their surroundings, everyone looks like they have simple but nice things around them at all times. Part of the joy of this fairy tale should be that it arises in an environment that seems completely antithetical to its emergence.
“You’re on your own when you’re swimming.”
Plus, this whole cast has the enviable problem of being entirely too pretty. For instance, this is the second time in less than six months that I’ve seen Anna Sundberg cast in a role where everyone claims she’s fat or ugly because the script tells them to, and I don’t buy it at all. Sundberg is a beautiful young woman, and a fine actress, and she clearly goes to the gym on a regular basis. Reality is fighting with the play here. If my eyes don’t believe something is true, repetition of words, even Sundberg’s fine acting, isn’t going to undo that.
“Are you all right?”
The cognitive dissonance around Leah is exacerbated by the choice to use Erin Schwab as an actual Mama Cass stand-in. On the page, Leah bonds with Cass and her music because Cass was overweight and yet still could be sexy due to her one-of-a-kind voice, which was undeniable. Not having Leah be a physical as well as social outcast undercuts that connection. And not using Cass’ voice, still with us decades after her death, to call out to Leah further undercuts that. Leah doesn’t have an imaginary friend who appears to her (as this production suggests). She just has music into which she retreats. It’s that compounded isolation which leads Leah to strike out at others the way she does.
“If she was so happy being fat, why did she choke to death on a sandwich?”
Schwab’s Mama Cass/Narrator figure is also problematic because she disrupts the natural flow of the story. There are a couple of times when giving the story a little musical room to breathe actually works—as when Jamie is allowed to sit and watch Ste sleep, and the music relieves the tension that a silent moment or two of staring would bring. The music also helps boost the romance quotient.
More often than not, however, it feels like the production is just marking time during these musical interludes. The actual physical transitions of actors and set all take place swiftly, and then people do a fair amount of wistful staring off into space, pondering their lot. A little of this goes a long way. Schwab has a lovely voice (to be honest, I’m not even sure that mic is necessary, she’s got a powerful set of pipes). It just doesn’t seem like this concept is utilizing either her talents or the music well.
This was especially clear during an extended sequence of character interactions in the second act which went uninterrupted from one to the next for many minutes. I found myself enjoying the rhythm of the scenes as they built on one another, set free from the stop and start structure of live musical insertions. Also, the character of the narrator never amounts to anything. Her contributions in both music and onstage presence don’t ultimately lead anywhere. This simply adds to the feeling of it all being tacked on, rather than integrated into the story. Not the fault of the performer, just a production concept that doesn’t pan out.
“Am I like my dad?”
“No. You’re like me.”
And I’m not complaining, but you can easily spot a show with a gay sensibility when the women are putting clothes on to be sexy, and the guys are taking off their shirts. (Let me stress, no problem with this aesthetic in the least.) Jennifer Blagen as Sandra gets some really slinky, low class numbers to wear in Kathy Kohl’s costume design, and Blagen wears them well. I know she’s a mother herself in real life, but the years just seem to slip right off her. It’s a nice challenge to have. Everyone’s mother should look so hot at “that age” (well, some teenage sons would argue otherwise).
“Four letter word: love.”
And tank tops on David Darrow are distracting enough, but when he and Dan Hopman keep taking off their shirts and I can quite literally count the abdominal muscles from the back row of the theater, how do you expect anyone to concentrate on the story? (Once again, wonderful problems alike for actor and audience to have. Keep ’em coming.) (Yes, I’m shamelessly pandering to get you into the theater. All true statements. See for yourself.)
“Some things are hard to say.”
If you haven’t smiled and sighed over something cute and funny lately, do yourself a favor and go see Beautiful Thing. It lives up to its title in more ways than one. Highly recommended.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.