Tall, with a mop of overgrown hair and terrible posture, Jamie (Trip Langley) is awkwardness incarnate. Fortunately, Trip Langley, the actor who plays this uncomfortable teen with secrets in the Nicu’s Spoon production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, knows exactly what he’s doing. And he isn’t alone. While the play shows signs of age and Harvey’s script contains some holes that still need some filling, director Michele Kuchuk has assembled a top-notch ensemble to tell this sensitive and amusing tale.
Beautiful, which debuted in the early 1990s, looks at the lives of several neighboring families in working class South London. Jamie lives with his mother, Sandra (Julie Campbell), a bartender looking to expand the options for her career and her life, which also includes boyfriend du jour Tony (Tim Romero).
Jamie spends most of his days with his friend, Leah (Rebecca Lee Lerman), an attention-seeking rebel who has been expelled from school and harbors an unhealthy worship of Mama Cass, and Ste (Michael Abourizk), a classmate who lives to his other side with an abusive father and brother (occasionally seen but never heard). Eventually, Ste seeks asylum under Sandra’s roof, and literally finds himself sharing a bed with Jamie, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality.
Eventually, Jamie and Ste realize that they are more than just friends, though Harvey never fully explores Ste’s journey. Has he always wrestled with uneasy feelings regarding his sexuality? His decision to embark on a clandestine relationship with Jamie seems to happen in too quick, and too easy, a fashion, although both Abourizk and Langley go a long way toward suggesting their characters’ inner torment. They provide the tentativeness where Harvey’s play provides only forward motion.
The play also lacks narrative focus. Is it about Jamie’s journey of self-discovery, his burgeoning relationship with Ste, or the way Sandra must reconcile what she learns about her young son? The idea that she might have a problem with Jamie being gay is introduced late in the play. And a potentially important scene, in which Jamie and Ste sneak into a local gay bar, is mentioned instead of shown.
Leah is also a red herring. As played at least in Kuchuk’s production, she is there to provide comic relief and distraction. Lerman does a great job with her madcappery, delivering sharp dialogue with a highly enjoyable dose of venom, but her subplot becomes a distraction when it should entwine more naturally with that of Jamie and Ste’s – will her jealousy turn her into a viable threat to their secret? Or will her choice to support them put her in a dangerous position? Neither happens, and her character’s ultimate journey feels somehow lesser as a result (it should be said, though, she can do a wicked imitation of Mama Cass).
Langley gives a heartbreakingly nuanced performance, full of the anguish attendant with anyone’s uncertain teen years. I wouldn’t say that he and Abourizk share great chemistry with one another, but the two work very well together, sharing a naivete and the feeling of what it means to be ostracized. Their scenes together provide the heart of the show, which is why it can be so frustrating when the action moves away from them.
Campbell is also magnificent, and adept at adding subtext to fuse Harvey’s narrative disconnects. She channels the character’s earthiness as well as her frustration at not being able to balance everything. It’s a marvelously layered performance. Lerman and Romero deliver sympathetic turns, though their roles do not afford them as many opportunities to explore their characters. And Stephanie Barton-Farcas, too, deserves applause for choreographing a realistic second act fight scene within the limited space allowed by the Spoon. (John Trevellini designed the minimalist set.)
Harvey’s play gives us characters that we come to care about, but he has put them in situations that feel too canned. If he were to have upped the stakes, then Kuchuk’s cast would have a play worthy of their skills.