There is a new and growing genre called Queer Theater — which is not a term that I would normally use — and Jonathan Harvey’s West End hit Beautiful Thing, now playing at Raleigh Ensemble Players under the direction of C. Glen Matthews, is one of its foremost examples of that genre in which sexual politics frequently trump credibility in characterization and plot development. And that is my principal problem with Beautiful Thing.
This R-rated coming-of-age story, which is set in Thamesmead, southeast London, in May 1993, is peopled with characters that are just too good to be true. Thamesmead is a housing project occupied by a motley assortment of working-class families. Sandra (Maggie Rasnick) lives in one unit will her tall but apathetic and unathletic 15-year-old son Jamie (Jesse R. Gephart) and, sometimes, her boyfriend Tony (Jim Zervas).
Jamie’s 16-year-old friend Ste (Ryan Brock), a star on the school soccer and track teams, lives with his (unseen) alcoholic and abusive father and brother in an adjacent unit, and Leah (Chaunesti Lyon) lives with her family in another unit that shares a wall with Sandra’s flat — and, oh boy, do these walls have ears.
Ostensibly, Sandra is a slatternly single mother and barmaid who turns out to have a proverbial heart of gold when her slacker son Jamie, who’s already dropped out of school, announces that he’s gay and in love with Ste the boy next-door. Tony not only turns out to be the artistic type, but a paragon of tolerance to boot. Ste, who is regularly used as a punching bag by his drunken old man (for reasons unrelated to Ste’s emerging sexuality), initially resists Jamie’s advances, but finally agrees to travel with Jamie to a well-known gay bar where these two underage boys can hoist a pint and dance and drink with older men and women. The fact that all of these developments are okay with Sandra, who agrees to accompany the boys on their second trip to the bar, and with Tony and Leah, who not only goes along but announces — out of the blue — her interest in meeting the woman of her dreams is all just too incredible, too fantastical a series of events for me.
Despite its improbable plot turns, Beautiful Thing, which is sensitively staged by REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews, features five warm and winning performances. Maggie Rasnick makes a most impressive REP debut as Sandra, a tough-as-nails working-class woman who somehow seems to have transcended all of the prejudices of her class. Jesse Gephart’s Jamie towers over Ryan Brock’s Ste, which is a paradox because Ste is not only the older but the more athletic of the two. Gephart projects the slacker attitude wonderfully well; and Brock, who always seems acutely uncomfortable, frowning like he’s suffering from a perpetual wedgie, expertly projects Ste’s latent suspicion of any kindness extended toward him as well as his touching vulnerability to affection of any sort from anyone.
Jim Zervas’ Tony is inexplicably thoughtful and charming, even in the midst of a family crisis; and Chaunesti Lyon gives a gritty performance as Jamie’s fellow slacker Leah, who since her expulsion from school has majored in smoking, drinking, and drugs and soon hopes to add sex to the list.
The sprawling set by production designers Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su, which diagonally bisects the playing area of Artspace Gallery 2, somehow dissipates the intimacy of this intimate drama. The ceiling is a tad low, which interferes with sightlines; and the time it takes the characters to navigate the horseshoe-shaped walkway that connects all three flats is time — and dramatic momentum — lost.
How much and how well you enjoy REP’s production of Beautiful Thing may well depend more on your sexual politics than on the merits of the script. This gravitationally challenged, middle-aged, middle-class, white, heterosexual reviewer found the characters and the plot of Beautiful Thing a little too contrived to be convincing. In other words, there was no pot of gold for me at the end of this dramatic rainbow.
Note: REP will also perform Beautiful Thing May 27-29 in the Belk Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Asheville as part of the 2006 Season of Stoneleaf: A Festival of North Carolina Theatre (http://www.stoneleaftheatrefestival.com/2006/index.shtml [inactive 9/08]).
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Beautiful Thing Thursday-Saturday, April 21-22 and 27-29 and May 4 and 6, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 30, at 7 p.m.; and Friday, May 5, at 10:30 p.m. in Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($12 students and seniors), except $10-a-ticket performance May 5th. 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/Wreservation.html [inactive 9/06]. Note: The April 28 performance will be audio described and sign language interpreted Performance with Large Print and Braille programs and a tactile tour starting at 7 p.m. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/ [inactive 9/06]. International Movie Database: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0115640/. Fan Site: http://davie.users.netlink.co.uk//beautiful-thing/ [inactive 5/06].