Seventeen years ago, when Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company went east with its take on Sam Shepard’s True West, it landed at the Cherry Lane Theatre and stayed there for 762 performances, making true stars of its cast of two: John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.
Hopefully, that spell still holds: Last Valentine’s Day, Chicago’s Famous Door Theatre Company entered the Cherry Lane with its New York premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, and in rushed five fully formed actors with their own dreams of stardom.
“The theatre’s got great karma for us,” says Matt Stinton of this home away-from-home. “You can almost feel that the Ghosts of Chicago Productions Past are still hovering here.”
The fact that the show’s whole cast leapt like Butch and Sundance into uncertainty is, he says, “a tribute to our producer, Roy Gabay [who co produced Beautiful Thing with Ron Kastner], who had enough confidence in what he saw in Chicago to bring us all in and not go for star names.” A nervous-making move, yes, “but we believed in the play and were really confident with Gary Griffin’s direction. Even if the show had flopped and we closed in two weeks, I still would have gotten a show to New York. This is where you ultimately, as a stage actor, want to wind up.”
Already there’ve been nibbles from agents -- pretty good for a 22-year old who graduated college a year ago this month. Famous Door’s artistic director Dan Rivkin contacted a professor of Stinton’s at Illinois State about someone who looked 15 and could play it, and Stinton answered the knock. Jamie, the role he does so winningly in this sweet-tempered comedy, is a teen in the tenements of South East London, trying to make a tentative, tender connection with someone. The someone, as life would have it, is the boy next door. “Beautiful Thing is a first-love story, so whether you’re heterosexual or homosexual, I think you still draw from the same experiences,” reasons Stinton. “It’s a very human play. What’s nice is it doesn’t make a huge political stand about it. It just doesn’t. It just does it. It just happens, and the next thing you know you’re in the middle of it, and you completely forget there are two boys up there. You just follow the story, as if it were any love story.”
Said another way (by Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire): “Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight or a street. But the heart of a human being?” To that end, marketing people hope to carry Beautiful Thing beyond gay appeal into the mainstream.
That would be most appropriate, seconds Kirsten Sahs, whose brassy portrayal of Jamie’s working-class mum, Sandra, won her Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actress last year. “It’s amazing the effect this play has on people. I hope no one stays away, thinking, ‘Oh, this is just a gay play.’ It isn’t. It touches a gay audience directly, of course, but it is so universal -- the relationship between the mother and the son, the experience of falling in love for the first time. Everybody does, whether it’s with the opposite sex or not.
“We even have a Beautiful Thing Fan Club,” she adds. “They actually started as fans of the movie version, but when they heard we were doing the U.S. premiere in Chicago, they got themselves organized and came from all over the nation, repeatedly. They would just come again and again to the show. And a number of them have been here in New York.”
Strong underpup appeal is the reason Susan Bennett gives for why the play endears itself across the board. She dispenses quirky comic relief as the not-entirely-superfluous girl-next-door, Leah, a young flunky hooked on Mama Cass records and searching for acceptance like the rest of the characters. “It has such scruffy charm,” she says. “It’s kinda like that little wet mutt you have to towel off at the end of a rainstorm. It’s a wonderful, warm play—in the way it’s written and in the way everyone has given their hearts to it.”
Daniel Eric Gold, another 22-year-old to be taken for a teen-ager, admits it’s not easy to play a romantic ideal -- in this case, the object of Jamie’s affections, Ste. “Our director told me that, if this is indeed an urban fairy tale, then I am the Prince Charming character, and that’s what people should see,” he says. If that illusion works, it’s still uncomfortable. “When I’m backstage and I hear everybody fancies Ste and all that stuff, I get a bit embarrassed because I tend to be shy in real life. It’s onstage where I can let it all go.”
Operating on the cusp of the action as Sandra’s live-in boyfriend Tony, Kurt Brocker has nevertheless a good overview of the play: “I’d like people to come away from Beautiful Thing with a renewed sense of what it means to fall in love, how one relationship in your life can completely change your life—because I think that’s probably what happens. These two boys fall in love. It probably won’t last, but it has definitely changed their lives forever—and for the better. This show, on its simplest level, can open a person’s mind a little bit. For the gay community, it’s a very cathartic experience. They see themselves up there in a very positive light, and that’s something every minority needs to see. But I hope a straight audience comes to see the show, too—there’s a message in it for everybody.”