Queer as folk 

Beautiful Thing maintains its status as a gay touchstone

The amazing thing about Beautiful Thing is how it makes a radical statement out of puppy love. The scruffy 1996 film of a romance blossoming between British teens only breaks ground because they're boys of high school age. Otherwise, Beautiful Thing proves a charmingly conventional take on first love, and in part by avoiding heavy-headed gender politics, the film became a transcontinental sleeper hit.

Because many gay people don't come out of the closet or aren't comfortable with their sexuality at the age of Beautiful Thing's young leads, the movie has become a touchstone of identification and what-might-have-been wish fulfillment. This is the case with Jonathan Harvey's original stage play, which has been imported to the States thanks to the film's success.

If you've seen the movie, the Actor's Express production, directed by David Crowe, will hold few surprises. The play's five characters have somewhat more expanded roles than onscreen, making the work akin to a "director's cut" of the play script. Beautiful Thing offers a sweet love story and realistic slice of impoverished London life, although it's not a very substantial work.

Young neighbors Jamie (Clifton Guterman) and Ste (Brian Crawford) each have difficult family lives. Ste's bullying brothers and abusive father never appear on stage, but we do glimpse the bruises that stripe Ste's back. Jamie never knew his father, but he frequently butts heads with his tart-tongued single mum, Sandra (Shelly McCook). And Sandra has hostile relations with Leah (Aprylle Ross), the black, pregnant teen who lives next door and is obsessed with Mama Cass.

With walls as thin as cheesecloth, the three adjacent flats hold few secrets. Rochelle Barker's set provides an unattractive but realistic rendering of the housing estate's front landing. In some places the walls have a worn, nearly transparent appearance, making the flats look like a row of storage lockers. The walls open up to reveal Jamie's bedroom, where some of the play's most poignant moments take place.

Ste begins spending the night at Jamie's to escape the neverending rows at home. At first, Guterman and Crawford have the easy interplay of adolescent pals, but they become touchingly tentative as they discover their attraction to each other. Guterman's Jamie is the more sexually forward, while athletic Ste is more shy and self-conscious.

Most of the play takes place in front of the flats. Some of the profane chat involves the lore of Mama Cass, as the characters wonder what kind of sandwich she choked on and whether her voice really improved after a blow to the head (which Leah tries to duplicate). Before entering, you should study the theater's posted glossary of Britishisms, as the South London slang and references to English television get thick. But Shelly McCook thrives on them, with her Sandra alternating from broadly clownish to sympathetically maternal. (After June 23, she'll be replaced by the estimable Joanna Daniel.)

Beautiful Thing is subtitled "An Urban Fairy Tale," which might be Harvey's way of justifying his rosy depiction. Sandra ultimately proves supportive of the two boys, but we never see the reaction of Ste's family, making the drama seem unbalanced waiting for a shoe that never drops. Nevertheless, the opening night crowd wholly embraced it, snapping fingers along with the Mama Cass music, whooping at double entendres (even when none were intended) and in some cases, tearing up at the end. Beautiful Thing may not be a complex or ambitious piece of theater, but for many audiences, it hits close to home.

Beautiful Thing plays through July 27 at Actor's Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St. Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Sun. at 5 p.m. $20-$25. 404-607-7469. www.actorsexpress.com.

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