Saturday, January 14, 2006

Diversionary’s Beautiful Thing a Beautiful Thing

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing is — dare I say it? — a beautiful thing, a 1993 play about two young lads in the Thamesmead housing project in London brought together more by their dysfunctional families than anything else, forced to share the same bed and ultimately becoming lovers. It’s playing at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, through February 5 in a production fully faithful to the piece’s quietly rambunctious spirit and truth.

Jamie Gangel (Matt Barrs) is a 15-year-old Thamesmead student who hangs around his home a lot, frequently cutting school on Wednesdays because that’s the day the schoolboys are supposed to play soccer, which he can’t stand. (The script refers to the sport — properly, for the British setting — as “football.”) His mother Sandra (Jillian Frost) makes her living as a barmaid and is driving Jamie crazy with a personality at once free-spirited and maternally demanding. The two, occasionally joined by Sandra’s boyfriend Tony (John DeCarlo) — a chronically unemployed hippie type with pretensions of being a painter — live in the middle unit of three row houses.

On one side of them is Leah (Rachael Van Wormer), a precocious teenager whose antics with sex and drugs have got her expelled from school and left her plenty of time to stay at home and listen to records by her idol, the 1960’s American singer “Mama” Cass Elliott. On the other side is Ste (Joseph Panwitz) — pronounced “stee” and short for Stephen — the Thamesmead school’s star soccer player and a frequent victim of domestic violence at the hands of his father and older brother. (We never see the beatings but we hear enough of them via off-stage recorded voices that we know what’s going on.) One night, after a particularly vicious attack, Ste seeks refuge in the Gangels’ home, and ends up sharing Jamie’s bed and, after a properly awkward flirtation, considerably more than that.

Beautiful Thing is a script that’s been mostly associated with women directors; Hettie McDonald did both the 1993 London stage premiere and the 1996 film version, and Rosina Reynolds helmed the Diversionary production. She’s especially good at this sort of material, particularly in handling the rather diffident scenes with the two young men in bed first psychologically, then physically, feeling each other out. Reynolds gets just the right sort of tentativeness out of Barrs and Panwitz in their playing, and she and the two actors make the scene completely believable.

Comparisons of this scene to the sexual encounters of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the film Brokeback Mountain are perhaps inevitable — though the Brokeback characters are adults and at least one already has a girlfriend, the scenes are similar in the seemingly accidental ways the protagonists drift into a sexual relationship, the “I’m not Queer” speeches they give after they’ve done the dirty deed, and the wrestling and other physical horseplay with which they try to defuse their mutual attraction. But the sensitivity of Harvey’s script and Reynolds’ direction are a far cry from the in-your-face style with which Brokeback Mountain’s makers projected this situation — and it helped that Beautiful Thing’s creators didn’t carry on the pretense that these things had never been shown or done on stage or film before.

Oddly, for a script written by a man and presented as a Gay male love story, it’s the female characters who are the most strongly drawn. Jillian Frost plays Sandra as a force of nature, driving Jamie crazy with her rapid alternations between trying to be his best buddy and suddenly pulling “mommy” rank on him. Rachael Van Wormer almost steals the show as Leah, whose tough, brittle exterior inevitably hides her vulnerability and whose obsession with a pop star who died young would usually be assigned to one of the Gay male characters. (Kudos to playwright Harvey for avoiding that cliché.) John DeCarlo does what he can with a pretty milquetoast character.

As Jamie, Marrs is a miracle; he actually looks 15 (he’s young — his bio describes him as a third-year theatre major at UCSD — but not that young), and his innocent, pretty-boy face (considerably prettier, not surprisingly, when he takes his glasses off) is utterly right for the role. Panwitz partners him well in the less compellingly written role of Ste. The character seems to have surprisingly little angst at being a victim of domestic violence; his only reaction seems to be a desire to avoid the embarrassment of letting other people see his bruises. He’s the more butch of the two, though not so much more that we can’t believe in them as a rather gawky teenage couple, and he’s the one we get to see “in the flesh,” as it were, though just in boxer shorts instead of totally nude.

The entire cast deserves a special compliment for doing the working-class British accents so perfectly. (Did Reynolds coach them herself? No dialogue coach is credited in the program.) The accents are so well done that throughout the play it’s hard to believe we’re watching American actors. Even when Barrs has to recite dialogue from the Cagney and Lacey TV show, or Van Wormer impersonates Mama Cass in the middle of a bad drug trip from which the other characters have to talk her down, they managed the difficult feat of sounding like Britishers trying to sound like Americans surprisingly well.

Harvey’s script is peppered with British slang terms, some of which (like “git,” meaning “idiot” — as in Sandra’s line to Leah, “You can’t devote yourself to a dead, fat American git all your life”) are familiar to anyone who’s seen a Beatles’ movie or enough Monty Python episodes, while others had to be defined in a glossary in the program. (One entry is for “spotted dick,” which is actually a food — a dessert made of steamed sponge cake and raisins — though a typo in the program leaves out the word “cake” and will probably have a few theatergoers scratching their foreheads.)

Beautiful Thing has its faults, notably in the unbelievable speed with which Jamie and Ste mature from adolescents tentatively exploring each other’s bodies to fully identified and committed Gay men. The idea of 15-year-olds merrily breezing their way into a Gay bar without having to worry about ID’s seemed a little strange — don’t they have limits on how old you have to be to go to a bar in Britain? David Weiner’s set design is effective when it shows us the exteriors of the row houses, less so when Jamie’s bed pops out of the wall like a jack-in-the-box and Barrs has to rub a spot on the brick wall behind him to pantomime turning out the light in his bedroom. The rest of Diversionary’s physical production is solid — this isn’t a company that just buys a few pieces from thrift stores and asks us to believe it’s lived-in furniture and clothing — and the technical side is all it should be.

Overall, Beautiful Thing is a solid, unpretentious piece of Queer-themed entertainment, believably scripted and beautifully staged in Diversionary’s production. It’s not being offered as something that will change your life or remake the world as far as its treatment of Queer people is concerned, but it’s genuinely heartwarming and funny in a nervous, edgy sort of way. This is Diversionary’s 20th anniversary season — and they’ve picked this production for a church-like collection-plate passing at the start of the second act of every performance — but their recipe for success, (mostly) good scripts sensitively and intelligently produced, makes their continued existence, and whatever you can contribute to it, well worthwhile.

Beautiful Thing plays at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, through Sunday, February 5. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $27 ($23 for students, seniors and military). For reservations or more information, please call (619) 220-0097 or visit