Growing Pains

Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is, above all, sweet. Two boys come of age in the middle of a rough-and-tumble London housing project. Beating all kinds of odds, including abusive parents and tough-guy expectations, they manage to find tender adolescent love in each other's arms. Lightweight, though potentially moving, the play offers little more than a bit of insight into the problems faced by gay teenagers who often find themselves trapped in a world of rigid parental expectations and the schoolyard politics of rumor and public humiliation.

As the second full-scale production from Chris Jimmerson's Unhinged Productions, the show is strangely apropos. It reveals a new company clearly in the throes of its own growing pains. The only thing preventing this homely little production from collapsing into a chaos of noise and irritating chatter is the force of Jimmerson's young cast.

At the center of the story is Jamie (Dodd Bates), a teenage boy who is working hard to negotiate life with his mother. Foulmouthed, hardheaded and emotionally uptight, Sandra (Laura Chapman) is a 35-year-old hornet of a woman who loves her son despite his "weirdness." She papers her walls in imitation velvet, drinks too much when life gets hard and talks to Leah (Elizabeth Bannor), the neighborhood hoodlum, like she's got "cunt written on [her] forehead."

Jamie, on the other hand, is a relatively quiet boy who retreats into his own world when things get uncomfortable. On the soccer field he acts out the characters from Cagney & Lacey instead of kicking the ball. Living in the squalid flat next door is a good-looking student-athlete named Ste (Alfonso Chable). He's the kind of boy girls go gaga over. Leah even climbs up the side of the wall to try to get a peek at him in the loo. But the boy carries a terrible secret: His drunken father beats him -- sometimes so severely that he can't compete in games.

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One night things get so bad at home that he slips next door to Jamie's house and begs to spend the night on the couch. He ends up in Jamie's room, sleeping at first "head to toe." But it isn't long before the boys are sleeping in a "70 minus one" position.

As their love blooms, the boys attempt to negotiate parents and friends. A raging and lonely Leah threatens to out them one day when they ignore her pleas for company. Sandra hears through the barmaid grapevine about their sojourn to the Glouster, a gay bar famous for its "great big pink neon ass out front."

This quaint story is most interesting for the largesse of its eccentric characters. In Jimmerson's production Sandra becomes the focus simply because she is the loudest and often the most annoying character. Chapman's working-class Sandra is screechy and crass and utterly believable, but she lacks any tenderness that would draw the others to her. It's impossible to understand why Tony (Tim Wrobel), her well-intentioned but ineffectual stoner boyfriend, stays with her as long as he does. In fact, the show works best when it focuses on Chable's Ste and Bates's Jamie, who are charming, though not on stage alone together nearly enough to keep the incessant screeching down to a tolerable level.

The faults in this production, from funky timing to an awkward set, are most likely the result of inexperience. And like any gawky teenager, Unhinged Productions will surely come into its own with time and hard work.

Beautiful Thing runs through December 12 at The Little Room Downstairs Theater, 2328 Bissonnet, (713)398-7577. $20.

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