Beautiful Thing

New Conservatory Theatre Center’s ten-year anniversary production of its West Coast Stage premiere of Beautiful Thing celebrates the timelessness of a love story set in working class London in the early 90's. Written by Jonathan Harvey, Beautiful Thing was first produced in London in 1993. It received its U.S. stage premiere in Chicago in early 1998 and later that year opened at New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco. Judging from the sold out performance I attended, this production may be a reprisal of its earlier success.

Directed by Andrew Nance, who played Jamie in the original performance, the play largely takes place on the landing of a South London housing project, where Jamie (Ben Carver) and his mother Sandra (Gigi Benson) live alongside Ste (Brant Rotnem) and his abusive father and next door to Leah (Shubhra Prakash), the modern version of a British tart. Opening onto the landing are three red doors, one for each apartment. A basket of pink carnations hangs between Ste’s and Jamie’s apartments. A folding laundry rack sits next to Ste’s stage left. Downstage, below the landing, are two white chairs.

As the lights come up, Jamie is sitting on the stoop, having left school early. Leah sees him and plies him with her fanatic worship of the dead Mama Cass. Sandra appears in leggings and a pullover top on her way out. Ste arrives home after soccer at school, which Jamie had fled. Jamie is 15, difficult and conflicted, afraid to participate in sports at school, yet combative toward his mother. Sandra works at a pub and behaves accordingly. She’s caught Tony’s (Cory Tallman) eye, a local artist who, at 27, is many years her junior. Sandra’s saucy banter and her ribald attraction to Tony bring the party to an otherwise languid scene dominated by Jamie’s adolescent angst, Leah’s obnoxious demands for attention and Ste’s familial misfortunes.

Act One of the play is largely exposition, leaving the bare bones acting skills of a few cast members exposed to harsh light. The working class British accents, though laudably employed and well mastered, make understanding the dialogue difficult. With the exception of her drug overdose, which is rich, Prakash’s over the top rendition of Leah’s adolescent state is too pushed for comfort. The boys, Jamie and Ste, are very tortured in their awareness of their budding sexuality and their attraction for one another. The bedroom scenes, played downstage below the landing, are just audible, leaving the audience as tortured as the boys. Benson’s Sandra is the driving force of the play. Engaging, witty, compassionate and pragmatic, her situation is completely credible. She shines the light on the party for all to see. Tallman’s Tony is no slouch either.

Act Two of the play, which holds the action, comes together nicely and is worth the wait. Not only has the story grown full, the women’s relationship juxtaposed to the boys’ relationship provides an interesting backdrop to Jamie’s accidental coming out and the weight it bears.

Beautiful Thing plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through January 3, 2010, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets range from $22 - $40 and are available at the NCTC Box Office at 415-861-8972 or online at www.nctcsf.org.