Beautiful Thing isn't a gay romance so much as a two-hour tribute to the questionable wisdom of Mama Cass. The play opens with her 1969 hit "It's Getting Better," which attempts to justify an underwhelming love affair with an upbeat chorus and a gee-whiz smile. "Just like a flower that takes time to bloom, this love of ours is taking time to grow," she sings. "And I don't mind waitin', I don't mind waitin'."
She's welcome to wait, of course. But if the best thing you can say about your relationship is that it's "getting better," then maybe it's time to call it quits.
As it turns out, the song aptly describes the New Conservatory Theatre Center's new production of Jonathan Harvey's 1993 play. The show begins very badly, but by the end of the first act I could write the words from Cass' chorus on my notepad: "It's getting better, growing stronger." That's not exactly the warmest praise, whether you're talking about a night at the theater or a night with your boyfriend. But it's an acknowledgment that the production recovers some of its footing after an extremely rough start.
The play, which made its West Coast premiere at NCTC in 1998, is probably most familiar to audiences who caught the 1996 movie version, one of the better products of the mid-'90s boom of gay-themed independent films. Set sometime in the mid-'80s, judging from the Cagney & Lacey references, the story revolves around Jamie (Ben Carver), a teenager living in a bleak public-housing complex in Thamesmead, a Southeast London suburb. His mother, Sandra (Gigi Benson), works at a local pub and keeps up a stream of ill-considered boyfriends, the latest of whom is a well-meaning stoner (Cory Tallman) who seems to find his own vagueness very wise. One of their neighbors is Leah (Shubhra Prakash), a sassy teenager who, recently expelled from school, spends her considerable free time dropping acid and blasting Mama Cass records. And most importantly, another neighbor is handsome jock Ste (Brant Rotnem), who is Jamie's classmate and crush object.
As often happens in romances — blame Romeo and Juliet if you must — the play's most interesting characters aren't the two lovers but the people surrounding them. That's especially true of Sandra, a foulmouthed dynamo in possession of what appears to be an endless supply of unfortunate miniskirts. She's capable of surprising the audience with her turns of mind and turns of phrase — she helpfully explains to her son that "there's an island out in the Mediterranean called Lesbian" — and Benson delivers the production's strongest performance by making Sandra both lovable and daft. Rotnem, as Ste, is nearly as good; the mechanics of genre and plot require him to be little more than a charmer in gym shorts, but at least he's genuinely charming.
Too bad the rest of the cast stumbles repeatedly over the play's dialect. If you're at all picky about accents, you'll find the first few minutes of this production very tough going, and you might even be tempted to leave rather than watch the actors struggle visibly with their Cockney vowels. If, however, you're able to forgive the spotty dialect work, you might be able to focus on the snappy dialogue rather than its botched delivery. (It's tough not to love an exchange like this, however mispronounced: "Anybody got a match?" "Yeah — my arse, your face.")
Director Andrew Nance sometimes mismanages the play's more melodramatic sequences — among other things, the cast could use some pointers on stage combat — but he does much stronger work in a few of the play's quiet moments. For instance, the first act ends with a beautifully modulated scene in which Ste and Jamie share a bed and a kiss; later, Sandra confronts the evidence of her son's shenanigans — she's seen him walk into a gay bar — in a wrenching, funny exchange that manages to fend off any trace of schmaltz. (It helps that she has no interest in putting things delicately: When Jamie asks her how she knows it was a gay bar, she replies that it had "a bloody great pink neon arse outside of it.")
For all the zingers in Harvey's script, he doesn't quite pull off a convincing ending. That's probably because his play attempts to achieve two objectives, only one of which can win out. On the one hand, he's offering a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of these working-class Londoners, who deal with alcoholism and domestic abuse as a matter of grim routine. On the other, he's presenting a pretty far-fetched fantasy about an introverted gay kid capturing the heart of the dreamy football player next door.
Fantasy wins in the end, of course, with the two guys dancing in full view of their neighbors as Mama Cass' "Dream a Little Dream of Me" plays in the background. Crowd-pleasing though this ending may be, it marks a full retreat from the play's hard realities into the mushy heart of American pop (or as Cass puts it, "sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you"). We'll call it redemption by musical cue.
As a conclusion, it's as pleasantly vague as the mysterious "thing" in the play's title. And though the production ends far better than it begins, it's helpful to remember that Mama Cass wasn't right about everything: Improvement is always commendable, but it's not always worth singing about.