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Wickedly funny, terribly romantic

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‘Beautiful Thing’
Weekend Theater
Sept. 1


I had forgotten about my first slow dance. I was 12, at a Sadie Hawkins dance, and the song was “Blue Moon.” I was nervous, but also in heaven. My head on his shoulder, him whispering in my ear. The rest of the school seemed to disappear around us. I’ll never forget it again.

One reason I won’t is Jonathan Harvey’s drama “Beautiful Thing,” being staged at the Weekend Theater. The story of two 16-year-old boys living in a London housing project in the mid-1990s, “Beautiful Thing” is wickedly funny and terribly romantic.

Jamie and Ste are schoolmates and next-door neighbors. Ste’s father and brother regularly use him as a punching bag and he usually seeks shelter at Jamie’s house, where Jamie’s mother, Sandra, welcomes him. As the two spend nights together — Ste wounded and Jamie doing his best to comfort his friend — a romance begins. Initially shocked and angry when she finds out what is between Jamie and Ste, Sandra eventually becomes the fiercely loving mother both Jamie and Ste need.

Jackson Stewart, who plays Jamie, and Gabey Smoller, who plays Ste, are both students at Central High. If it weren’t so condescending, I would call these young men courageous for taking these roles. But let’s just call them actors instead. Talented actors. While Smoller is the stronger player of the two, the script gives him more to work with. Stewart’s role is largely made up of reacting — to his mother, Sandra; her boyfriend, Tony, and their neighbor, Leah. He simply gets to create less.

Samantha Porter, who plays Sandra, is quite a force. Until she softens towards Jamie, I found her so unlikable that I dreaded her speaking, which is a compliment. Sandra is bitter and angry. Porter is utterly convincing as Sandra and when it is time for Sandra to soften, Porter softens just the right amount. The character is not lost, but expanded.

Amanda Taylor’s Leah confused me. Taylor is a fine actress, if a bit over the top, but the role itself seems superfluous. Obsessed with Mama Cass, a foul-mouthed high school dropout, Leah does little to advance or enrich the play except to show that sometimes women are expendable.

Jerry Estill’s Tony steals the show. It’s not just that he gets the most laughs with his dry and seemingly dull wit. More than that, he is the moral center of the play. When Leah overdoses on drugs, it is Tony who takes charge. When Jamie comes out to Sandra, it is Tony who says, “It is OK.” Author Harvey and first-time director Tucker Steinmetz may try to trick the audience into believing Tony a dullard, but they give him all the tools he needs to shine out as a beacon of tolerance and love. I look forward to seeing Estill in the Weekend Theater’s upcoming production of “Take Me Out,” and not just for the nudity.

Someone generously thought to include a short glossary of English slang in the program. Somewhat less generously, the play is performed in British accents. Often the accents were just terrible, sometimes not even understandable.

I hate to give away the end of a play, but there’s a reason “Beautiful Thing” took me back to my first dance. That sweetness is something we should all experience. And there is something all the more special about the experience when it is shared by those of the same gender, who are so often cheated of the romance and tenderness of first love. It truly is a beautiful thing.

The play concludes its run Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8-9. The Weekend Theater is at Seventh and Chester streets. Call 374-3761 for reservations.

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