It's obviously Barbara Biddy's enormous affection for Jonathan Harvey's sweetly quirky play Beautiful Thing that energized Shipping Dock's exceptional production. Not an easy assignment, the play about awkward first love between two working-class teenage boys in southeast London carries the added burden of comparison with a film version that has become internationally beloved. Well, Biddy has found slightly older actors to play the roles utterly persuasively and look as young as those in the film. And she has staged and fine-tuned the performances to get perfectly blended tentative awkwardness, heartbreaking vulnerability, and loving interaction that shouldn't offend a prude but would cheer and uplift even the seriously depressed viewer.
I'm commenting not only on the two young male leads but almost all the supporting cast. Leah, the disturbed young girl next door, for instance, has emotional disturbances on top of her personality problems, and is unaccountably obsessed with Mama Cass of the Mamas and Papas. Meg Devine gives her such bright energy that even Leah's most annoying intrusions can't stop us from liking her. In yet another complete change of persona from earlier roles, Kerry Young is touching, funny, and entirely lovable as Sandra, Jamie's tough-talking, volatile mother. Her interaction with her son when she discovers that he is gay is a whirlwind of heart-grabbing mixed emotions.
As Jamie, Joe Tinkelman doesn't look 16, but after watching his scared sexual tension, hopeful affection, and boyish bravado, I was entirely willing to believe that he is 14 if he says he is. Kevin Dedes looks even younger than Tinkelman, and the scenes between the two are so exquisitely built and balanced that they elicit tears, laughter, and sighs in almost equal proportions. The film became a cult hit because it is a rare upbeat, likable gay love story. Staged live, it is inevitably more erotic but no less innocent and appealing. These are all peculiar characters whom we're nonetheless delighted to spend time with.
Daniel Mejak is less successful in the underwritten role of Sandra's boyfriend Tony, but he conveys the necessary caring attitudes. John R. Jaeger's realistically detailed set of the "front of three flats in a low-rise block in Thamesmead, Southeast London" is about the best-looking scenery I've seen at Shipping Dock in recent years.
Serge Love's lighting is sensitive and affecting. The English accents sound surprisingly good, and the Mama Cass recordings are always a joy. This is a production too good to run only until July 6. I have no doubt that you don't need even a gay-friendly orientation to enjoy it.
Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey, directed by Barbara Biddy, plays at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, at 8 p.m. Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays to July 6 at Shipping Dock Theatre.Info: 232-2250.