Beautiful Thing at the Lab Theater

February 29, 2012.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is set just two decades in the past, but it seems to be a whole different world. There are no cell phones or internet, and the television seems to offer only an endless array of quiz shows. Amid the crowded and noisy porches of a South London housing project, two 15-year-old boys discover their attraction for each other and try to explore that in a place with no secrets.

Theatre Latte Da and guest director Jeremy B. Cohen meld this gritty but also warm and funny drama with the music of "Mama" Cass Elliot, bringing in a sixth onstage character to sing the music that runs as an undercurrent through the show. It's a conceit that doesn't entirely work, but the power of the story, the performances, and the singing render that concern largely moot.

Designer Michael Hoover's two-tiered set fills the cavernous Lab with the concrete edifice of the Thamesmead estate. But while the exteriors are built of formed concrete, it appears that the walls between the apartments are made of little more than paper. Everyone knows each other's business among the three apartments, which means trouble for those exploring "forbidden" thoughts.

Teenagers Jamie and Ste are neighbors and friends. Ste loves to spend time in the pool or on the football pitch and attend West Ham United matches. Jamie, on the other hand, hates sports, skipping school to avoid P.E. The two are also in the midst of the usual teenage sexual awakening, but they find that their attractions are turning to each other.

That's fraught with real danger, however. Gayness isn't part of their working-class reality, and it's not like the two can turn to an online forum for advice and support. Instead, they have to blunder along together, trying to keep their growing relationship secret amid the thin walls and finding escape in the listings for gay clubs in magazines.

The changes are noticed by those around them, especially by Jamie's mother, Sandra, who does her best to provide a brighter life for the two of them. Unlike her neighbors, whose concrete porches are decorated with a piece or two of broken-down furniture, Sandra has created a garden of potted and hanging plants as a way to give extra definition to her life.

Though Erin Schwab does a fantastic job singing, the Cass Elliot songs themselves don't completely mesh with the drama. When they connect—as with the Act One closer "The Right Somebody to Love" as Jamie and Ste finally share an intimate moment together—the songs are a fantastic addition. When they don't, they provide unneeded speed bumps when all we want is to spend more time with our fully rounded characters.

Harvey's script provides plenty for the performers to work with, but it is ultimately their hard work that brings this quintet to life. The cast is led by a pair of promising youngsters,Steven Lee Johnson and David Darrow, who bring the confusion and pure joy of first-time love to brilliant life. Though both actors are obviously older than the characters they play, they are able to find and embrace that early teenage spark that makes their first fumbling attempts at intimacy so engaging.

Jennifer Blagen's task as Sandra is a very different one. Over the course of two hours, she slowly uncovers what makes her character tick. Coming off as harsh and angry—considering Sandra's place in life, that's not surprising—Blagen removes layer after layer of hard stone to reveal the loving mother beneath. She's playing a character who is far from perfect, but Blagen makes it clear that Sandra wants nothing more than a better life for her and her son, and who he is sleeping with doesn't make any difference in her mind.

Anna Sundberg and Dan Hopman get less to work with as next-door neighbor (and the Mama Cass enthusiast) Leah and as Sandra's latest lover, Tony, but they still make the best of what they are given. Sundberg, who probably could read the minutes of the Minneapolis Regulatory, Energy, and Environmental Committee and make them a thrill ride, is handed a character who is on the border of crazy. She takes that and runs, going deep into the crazy side but still giving the character depth.

An onstage experiment that doesn't quite work is by no means a failure. Beautiful Thing's merging of music and drama isn't perfect, but the power of the original script, the quality of the acting, and the strong singing definitely make it worthy.