In the drab, featureless slabs of concrete that make up a south London housing project, there are but two manifestations of life: Sandra's flourishing collection of green houseplants, and Jamie's budding affection for his neighboring schoolmate, Ste.
Sandra's ivies need no more than a garden hose to thrive in the urban drear; Jamie and Ste nurture something far more fragile: a schoolboy relationship that allows a beam of tender love into this stultifying environment. Their friendship is the "Beautiful Thing" indicated in the title of Jonathan Harvey's 1993 play. Theater Latté Da opened a production Saturday that aptly reveals the charms and flaws in this slim drama.
Jennifer Blagen portrays Sandra, a tough and randy barmaid who seems happy only when she has her legs wrapped around a man. Her current hunk of flesh is Tony (Dan Hopman), a charming pot-smoking slacker whom Sandra wishes were a Bohemian artist. Next-door neighbor Leah (Anna Sundberg) poses and snarls -- a rebellious tart who has been kicked out of school. Her over-the-top drug trip provokes a dramatic crisis that oddly distracts more than it resolves.
That leaves us Sandra's son, Jamie (Steven Lee Johnson), and neighbor Ste (David Darrow). Ste's sodden dad beats him. Here is where the play's heart beats, amid an otherwise raucous and empty script.
Johnson and Darrow find the innocent, halting charm of two boys discovering and reacting to their sexuality. It is simple and poignant.
Director Jeremy B. Cohen has put this collection of what "proper society" might call losers up on an elevated set, with Dennis Curley's four-piece band tucked beneath. This set, designed with colorless flat lines by Michael Hoover, helps to bisect the cavernous Lab Theater, although it puts the action at some distance from the audience.
The resulting coldness makes us wonder if "Beautiful Thing" works better as a film (for which it was adapted in 1996). The camera allows a softer perspective, more intimate and personal. Cohen's staging promises something almost epic -- larger than Harvey's dialogue can support.
Cohen smartly chose singer Erin Schwab to weave through the action as a detached narrator channeling the spirit of Mama Cass Elliot (Leah digs Cass's music). Schwab's voice and presence provide a perfect commentary on the action.
There is a still, small center in "Beautiful Thing," which emerges ever so tenuously in Latté Da's staging. It is the sweetest part of life.