Boys' Life

There are few memorable lines or riveting exchanges in Beautiful Thing. Instead, playwright Jonathan Harvey, whose 1993 work graced off-Broadway six years after it premiered in London, uses everyday, off-the-cuff banter to explore the budding romantic attraction between two teenage boys. And rather than wallow in adolescent angst, the Theatre Group's production skims along the play's choppy surface accompanied by the free-spirited strains of Mama Cass Elliott (a musical touch that was employed in the 1996 film version). Except for some troublesome incongruities, the tale proves an inviting look at first love's tender discoveries, exultations and, of course, ever-present tumults.

In fact, the two-hour show's easygoing tone is a welcome antidote to dramas that screech self-righteous axioms about sex and sexuality. The relationship that develops between fifteen-year-old Jamie (Tony Pordon) and his next-door neighbor and schoolmate, Ste (Marc Burg), emanates such warmth that one hardly worries about their union drawing anger from Jamie's hovering mother and Ste's abusive (and unseen) father. As charmingly played by Pordon and Burg, the boys' friendship progresses naturally from comfortable flirtation to passionate physicality. And director Steven Tangedal takes care to orchestrate episodes in which a stray touch or averted glance speak volumes, including the scene that builds to the couple's first kiss.

However, Tangedal doesn't always articulate the piece's atmospheric details, which are needed to provide flavor and dimension to what is essentially a naturalistic, slice-of-life drama. Unfortunately, the set looks more like a '50s interstate motel than the fourth-floor balcony of a London housing complex. Furthermore, the two boys wind up sleeping together in a bed that's too large -- and too preciously decorated -- for their humble circumstances: An incident of domestic discord forces the working-class kids to bunk together "head to foot," which looks silly when the two comfortably recline in a full-sized bed that's done up with a fluffy beige comforter and illuminated by a fashionable table lantern. A single bed strewn with a teenager's clothes would be more true to life, and its stark, unadorned presence would allow the episode of mutual affection to occur under the simplest -- and therefore the most ordinary -- circumstances. And finally, the role of Leah, a teenage dropout who lives next door to Jamie, is woefully miscast. While the talented Shelly Bordas is endearing as the muumuu-wearing Mama Cass wannabe, her off-the-wall behavior seems more suited to a middle-aged loner than a pixie-ish, directionless waif.

Practical considerations aside, Tangedal manages to nurture interesting relationships between all of the characters, including the on-again, off-again alliance that evolves between the two "adults." As the loudmouthed Sandra, Jamie's mother, Melanie Mosely locates the barmaid/single mom's hard-edged determination, as well as her deep longing to usher her son down life's happier pathways. She's decently complemented by Richard Cook, whose portrait of the ne'er-do-well boyfriend, Tony, is most touching when he quietly deals with a rude awakening near play's end. Like the rest of Harvey's drama, Tony's somber realization is a moment that underscores love's intoxicating serendipity -- and, now and again, it's sobering disposability.

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Jim Lillie

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