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HONEST PORTRAYAL OF GAY TEENS IS A 'BEAUTIFUL THING' TO SEE

Given the biases of the current stage, any dramatic portrayal of teen homosexual love remains pretty much, er, virgin territory.

British playwright Jonathan Harvey, in his comic and wise play "Beautiful Thing," takes creative advantage of the situation. Harvey's treatment of love between two gays has more honesty and insight than the great bulk of today's frivolous boy-meets-girl tales.

In this story about two teen-age boys growing up in cockney London, Harvey conveys with remarkable freshness the simple and touching sincerity that accompanies any first love. He accounts for the considerable gnashing of teeth required by British society where homosexuality is concerned, but otherwise makes no special fuss over the fact that this is a gay romance. It's simply young love -- much more complicated socially, but just as authentically felt as any young love.

Buffalo United Artists' production is uniformly excellent. Chris Kelly's direction is crisp and fleet-footed when it needs to be and carefully modulated when the tempo slackens. Thankfully, he never rigs the humor and never -- even momentarily -- lets things go sappy.

A fine cast is galvanized by the commanding Eileen Dugan as the hilariously crude Sandra, mother of Jamie (Joe Demerly), one of the teens. She habitually abuses Leah (Leah Russo), a young high school dropout and Mama Cass freak. "You wouldn't know sense if it slapped you about the face and said 'I'm sense,' " she growls. To her artist boyfriend, Tony (Timothy Finnegan), she says, "Get out your brush and give me a couple of strokes." She's a regular Mama Crass.

Dugan is so good that during a couple of wordless intervals the expressions on her face deepen the emotion to the point where you may suspect that this essentially light drama is about to slip into tragedy. Dugan can pull off a series of jokes and then abruptly make it clear that something abides in Sandra's heart besides rancor and rude sex.

Demerly is an utterly ingratiating actor with a face capable of a wealth of subtle expressions and a lean frame that is an expressive instrument in its own right. He renders perfectly Jamie's hesitation and then his growing command of his feelings toward his school mate and neighbor, Ste (Dan Horrigan).

No less praise can go to Russo. She has great comic mobility, a sense of when and how hard to come in with a line, and a lovely singing voice. When Sandra is chastising the kids for not inventing their own fun like she did when she was young, Leah comes back in a delightful cockney mumble, "Yeah! You'd light up a dinosaur and watch it burn."

Horrigan, as a young man fumbling toward an understanding of himself, is good but may appear a little too opaque next to Demerly's dazzling transparency. But the two work exceptionly well together, the actors mutually shedding light on one another.

Finnegan's Tony is just right, not too heavy on the dim slacker bit and alive enough to reveal that he actually does a have a few feelings of his own. At times, Harvey's comic touch can be a bit arch. But it doesn't matter. This great cast redeems it all.

RATING: 4 STARS

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