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Wednesday, Dec 23 1998
Good Word
The Loudest Voice and A Child's Christmas in Wales, performed by Word for Word. Voice by Grace Paley. Directed by Adrian Elfenbaum. Starring Sheila Balter and Jim Friedman. Christmas by Dylan Thomas. Directed by Mary Coleman. Starring Charles Shaw Robinson, Ben Cleaveland, and JoAnne Winter. At the Magic Theater, Southside, Building D, at Fort Mason, through January 3. Call 441-3687.

A Child's Christmas in Wales is such a smoldering old chestnut it's hard to believe anyone would try to stage it. One theater in Boston does it every year, for money, the way the A.C.T. does A Christmas Carol, and I have seen a pastor bore a congregation to tears by trying to fit the whole text into a service. The problem, usually, is that Dylan Thomas' story is so rich in language it needs to be read out loud, but narrating onstage when you could be acting is fantastically tedious. Word for Word makes it a matter of discipline to recite every word in the stories it stages, though, and not only has the company's success at it brought local fame, but its version of Child's Christmas may be the group's best example of how to dramatize prose. Last year I avoided the show out of personal prejudice; this year I have to admit that all the critics who liked it were right.

Instead of a story, Thomas tells the limitless wonder of a boy at Christmas in a snowy Welsh town. There are cats to be snowballed, a fire in Mrs. Prothero's house, fat lazy uncles, prim breakable aunts, Christmas carolers, Useful and Useless presents, cheeks bulging with goose, and blazing pudding. Word for Word brings it to life in Punch-style caricature, with uncles and cats and boys and aunts running around Charles Shaw Robinson as he narrates in a mild accent. The company doesn't, thank God, take it too seriously. Sometimes Thomas' heavy nostalgia is a joke -- "When I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales," etc., the exaggerating storyteller-sage talking to local kids -- and treating it with too much reverence infallibly kills the piece. Word for Word makes it as funny as possible, expands it with live Celtic music and drunken singing from Auntie Hannah, and turns it into the elegiac story it always was in the unpretentious pages of a book.

Grace Paley's The Loudest Voice opens the show; it's about another child's Christmas, circa 1932 in New York, when a teacher asks a Jewish girl with the loudest voice in class to be in a Christmas play. Her parents argue about whether she should, and the politics of assimilation that get bantered back and forth in the old Abramowitz kitchen don't sound outdated at all. Sheila Balter is effectively loud as the girl, Shirley; Jeri Lynn Cohen and Jim Friedman do a good job as her fussing mother and armchair-philosophical dad. Charles Shaw Robinson has a tough time with the local grocer's accent -- is it Irish? Jewish? -- but as the schoolteacher and especially as Cindy, the conceited purple-shawled Virgin, he's hilarious. This is a story about a play turned by Word for Word into a play, with the usual good results.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Young Love
Beautiful Thing: An Urban Fairytale, written by Jonathan Harvey. Directed by Ed Decker. Starring Nathan Wheeler, Linda Chavez Lagunas, Patricia Miller, Jamey Marks, and Andrew Nance. At the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through January 3. Call 861-8972.

A note from the playwright in the program to A Beautiful Thing casts the play as a protest piece, pointing out a rift in the ages of consent for gays and straights in British law. The heterosexual age was 16 in 1992, when the play was written; the homosexual age, 21. (Since then it's been lowered to 18.) From the note, you may expect a piece of propaganda suitable mainly for North American Man-Boy Love Association meetings, but really it's an unpretentious story about a love affair between two "lads" in a block of London council flats, with both boys under the age of consent. The playwright's unobtrusive point is that love can be beautiful even outside the law, and the critic's proper answer to this would be Duh -- if the show weren't also very funny.

Jamie and Ste live in adjacent flats. Jamie's mum works in a bar and has a 27-year-old layabout lover; Ste's father, when drunk, "leathers" him. Ste stays over at Jamie's one night to escape from his dad, and the two boys, awkwardly, fuck. Ste is more of a jock than Jamie, and at first he has problems adjusting, but the real trouble starts only when a teacher spots them at a local gay bar. The catalyst for the climactic hysteria is a neighbor girl named Leah, who's known as a local slut but has a sharp enough tongue to take care of herself. It's Linda Chavez Lagunas' performance as Leah that makes the show really funny, because Leah gets all the outrageous lines. I assume Lagunas isn't British, but her accent is perfect, and she does Leah's foulmouthed sauciness with excellent energy. In fact all the kids are well-acted; the two boys get along with each other and with Leah in a natural, urgent way that doesn't feel overpassionate or forced.

What does feel forced is Andrew Nance's performance as the layabout boyfriend. His accent slips between American and the various classes of British, and his grasp on his European-slacker persona feels tentative. The play itself also has a few slow moments and flaws: It doesn't need to be two hours long, and the final scene, with boys dancing with boys and girls dancing with girls, comes close to celebrating a maudlin Queer New World. (The airiness of this scene may be what the author means by "Urban Fairytale," since the rest of the show is straight realism.) But overall, A Beautiful Thing has a quiet faith in simple love stories, and the fact that it doesn't "wave huge banners politically," as the playwright says in his note, can only recommend it.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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