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Thin performance keeps play from becoming a 'Thing' of beauty

In the pantheon of gay coming-of-age tales -- one that seems to grow larger by the minute -- none is more beloved than Jonathan Harvey's "Beautiful Thing."

Set in a run-down housing project on the banks of the Thames in working-class London, Harvey's play captures a pivotal moment in the lives of two boys. The play sees Jamie and Ste -- one a fatherless malcontent, the other a motherless jock -- emerge from their unspectacular surroundings to find love in one another's arms.

It's tinged with the music of Mama Cass, whose words about love, acceptance and self-affirmation give the show an almost cinematic sense of purpose and drive.

A production of the play, starring Adam Rath and Gordon Tashjian and directed by Chris Kelly, opened Friday night in Buffalo United Artists Theatre.

Thanks to Harvey's skill and sensitivity as a playwright, the love affair at the center of "Beautiful Thing" resonates with as much force and truth as any of the theater's great love stories. His characters, rendered with a loving mix of bittersweet humor and aching pathos, have the potential to transport audiences to a very beautiful place, indeed.

But in this production, which tries earnestly to honor Harvey's characters but trips on the performance of its protagonist, that place remains largely elusive.

Rath, who performed a remarkably similar character in BUA's recent production of "In Gabriel's Kitchen," is gifted in portraying a certain faux-innocence, tinged with playfulness and underhandedness at the same time. But this gift has its limitations, and Rath employs it so indiscriminately that Jamie quickly morphs from a teenager on the verge of manhood into a sort of preening, pre-pubescent cartoon.

The show boasts a generally excellent cast, including Lisa Ludwig as Jamie's wisecracking mother Sandra, Amy Jakiel as Mama Cass-loving, acid-dropping neighbor Leah and Tashjian as jockish but lovable Ste. But if you can't believe the central character in a love story, all the heartrending supporting performances in the world aren't going to save the day. Accent-wise, Queen's English and Cockney face off against one another, often from the same performer, even the same sentence. From that perspective, a pivotal and violent argument between Jamie and Sandra comes off like some strange battle between an agitated chimney sweep and an 11-year-old version of Hugh Grant.

Acting-wise, Ludwig keeps firing away beautiful moments of truth and naked emotion at Rath, off of whom they ricochet like bullets from a steel wall. The same can be said for interactions between Jamie and Ste, Jamie and Leah and Jamie and Tony, Sandra's hippy-dippy boyfriend of the moment.

Still, thanks to Harvey's work and to Kelly's boisterous, fast-moving direction, the charm and message of the piece can't help but shine through. It's hard not to laugh out loud at the banter of Sandra and Leah's vitriolic relationship, which by and by thaws into a touching detente. Or when, in an attempt to console Jamie, Sandra says, "You're a good lad. And somewhere, you're going to find people that don't want to kill you."

You have really got to hand it to Ludwig, who is excellent as Sandra and drop-dead funny to boot.

There's abundant beauty, too, in the strains of Cass Elliot, who, like Harvey's characters, reminds us to make our own kind of music. Even if nobody else sings along.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"Beautiful Thing"

Drama presented by Buffalo United Artists in Buffalo United Artists Theatre, 119 W. Chippewa St.

For more information, call 886-9239 or visit www.buffalobua.org.

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