February 27, 2012.By Ellen Burkhardt, MN Monthly.
It’s a tricky thing, falling in love—especially when you’re a teenage boy. And when you’re falling for your neighbor. And your neighbor also happens to be a teenage boy.
This complicated tug-of-war between fear and courage, denial and truth shapes the core of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, currently being produced by Theater Latté Da at Minneapolis’s Lab Theater. Twin Cities newcomer—and Latté Da’s first-ever guest director—Jeremy B. Cohen directs the emotion-driven drama, and does an excellent job to ensure the script’s sincerity doesn’t get drowned out by stereotypes or exaggeration, both of which could easily have sunk the play into the realms of a hyper-hormonal teenage melodrama.
For the most part, Beautiful Thing is just that: beautiful. David Darrow and Steven Lee Johnson play Ste and Jamie (respectively), longtime next-door neighbors growing up in a blue-collar London neighborhood in the early 1990s. Ste is athletic, headstrong, and stoic—traits that help protect him from his abusive father. Jamie is more sensitive and insightful. Although he doesn’t immediately admit to himself (or others) that he’s homosexual, it’s clear he knows such is the case. Ste, on the other hand, needs Jamie’s reassurance and guidance to accept this truth—one that ultimately gives him the freedom his life has lacked for so long.
Jennifer Blagen plays Jamie’s flirtatious mother, Sandra, a woman more concerned with her latest love interest, Tony (Dan Hopman), than learning to cook or figuring out why Jamie is getting picked on at school. Their neighbor, Leah (2011 Ivey Award-winner Anna Sundberg), rounds out the dysfunctional neighborhood. A high-school dropout, Leah is constantly experimenting with drugs and losing herself in the music of Mama Cass, whose songs are used as a sort of backdrop for the story at large.
If the cast list were to end here, Beautiful Thing would have little to no weaknesses: the actors all play their roles with depth and sincerity, delivering the coming-of-age story with a well-rounded mix of humor, poignancy, and relevance. But one more character bounces on and off Michael Hoover’s well-designed set: Erin Schwab, dubbed the “narrator,” plays a dynamic Mama Cass. Schwab is a superb entertainer with a powerful, beautiful voice. But her presence on stage distracts from rather than enhances the show. Using Mama Cass’s music to segue between scenes and exemplify the emotions being experienced isn’t a bad idea, but the execution falls short.
The main message of the production stays strong, however. This is the story of two young boys facing the scary notion that their lives are about to change forever. Both come from broken homes and live in a neighborhood where just getting by is considered a success. But what good is surviving if you're living a lie? It's within this place of vulnerability and acceptance that the show's heart lies. By embracing their love, Ste and Jamie prove that it's more important to risk everything and be true to oneself than conform to the expectations of others and lose yourself in the process.
Chemistry and sincerity are crucial in making a production a success, and both these elements are largely present in Beautiful Thing. The small cast fills the industrial Lab Theater with an abundance of energy, passion, and emotion, and the award-winning script leaves no character undeveloped, no storyline unfinished. Ironically, the one thing that could make the play even better is the one thing that comes not from the stage, but the audience: to see two boys’ love for one another not as controversial, but rather as what it is—beautiful.