Sentiment and edginess make strange bedfellows, whether they’re shacking up in the run-down flats of Jonathan Harvey’s ’90s London or screwing in the tract house of Marlane Meyer’s 1955 California. The measured doses of the two elements most
likely to cancel each other give these fringy romances a quality like those picture cards with two images that switch back and forth according to the angle at which they’re viewed. Regard them one way, and they verge on political statements. Look from another angle, and they’re simple love stories. The popularity of both plays— multi-city productions of Chemistry, at least two and a film of Beautiful Thing— attests to their ability to address the zeitgeist of personal politics in a charming, uplifting manner, giving producers the impression they’re serving up relevance without ruffling too many feathers.
Both pieces, short on plot and long on snappy dialogue, examine offbeat love among the lower classes. The quaintness factor runs high, but the puppy-dog earnestness of Beautiful Thing and the charming characters of The Chemistry of Change make them difficult to dislike.
Beautiful Thing is a little slice-of-London centering around Jamie, a fatherless, hopelessly unathletic, nondescript kid whose mother works as a waitress at the local pub. Jamie’s femme environment is contrasted with the butch world of Ste, the soccer-playing hunk next door, motherless, abused by his dad and older brother. Completing the triad on the other side is Leah, a sassy girl obsessed with Mama Cass. Hmmm— dyke?
What follows is an unbelievably dewy gay coming-of-age story. Everything works out nicely: Jamie effortlessly seduces and painlessly retains Ste. Both quickly accept their homosexuality. Jamie’s mum doesn’t flip out, Ste’s folks don’t find out, and everyone literally dances off to a gay pub at the end. The abuse Ste suffers by the unseen men at home seems merely a plot device to get him into bed with Jamie. You fall into this fantasy like an ant into a pitcher plant. What gay man wouldn’t have wanted such an easy time of it at 16? Heck, straights don’t even get it this good. Still, Beautiful Thing comes off pretty “lite.” Or does it? Let’s tilt that card a few degrees. Is the starry-eyed quality of Beautiful Thing calculated to make you forget the volatility of its subject matter— gay teen sexuality? For some, even this squeaky-clean glance at the topic could cause a riot. One man’s fluff is another man’s edge. Daniel Eric Gold, as Ste, wins the competition for “actor in this Chicago-based production able to do a South East London accent.” Matt Stinton’s cuddly, nerdy Jamie gets Miss Congeniality.
A similarly controversial stone is left unturned in The Chemistry of Change, a neo-screwball comedy about a misfit family run by what its protagonist mother, Lee, insists is a “matriarchy.” If so, her definition of matriarchy is exceptionally wide, seeing as she supports her motley crew by both marrying serially and performing illegal abortions. In the play’s opening moment, Lee’s shlumpy daughter Corlis appears onstage in a bloody apron, complaining about a girl who “[lied] about how far along she was.” You might well brace yourself for Feminism, or at least bad taste. But neither appears. Men are complained about quite a bit— “Men never grow up, they just get bigger,” “Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini were all men . . . “— but feminism doesn’t live by man-bashing alone.
For all their big talk, Lee, her sister Dixon, and Corlis are emotionally controlled by men. Lee’s inept sons— Farley, Shep, and the prodigal Baron— keep the women’s dander up. On her wedding day, while waiting for her fiancé in front of a carnival attraction called the Hell Hole, Lee is seduced by its proprietor, Smokey, a man wearing fake devil horns. He somehow has intimate knowledge of her entire life. Soon Smokey has taken command of the household, bribing the kids off with wads of carny money. But is he evil if he inspires everyone to get jobs, move out of the house, and have their own families? Corlis thinks so, but she also holds a grudge against her mother for interrupting her own elopement years ago. So she comically attempts to seduce Smokey.
Meyer pays far more attention to dialogue than story, but she draws her characters so well it isn’t worth complaining. As Lee, however, Carlin Glynn is wobbly, and her moments of appealing flatness can’t compensate for her limited emotional range. Larry Pine’s Smokey radiates a smirky charm, and Barry Del Sherman, playing Farley, pulls off the near-impossible trick of humanizing a superfluous role. One of Meyer’s earlier plays, Moe’s Lucky Seven, set the story of Adam and Eve in a waterfront bar, with mixed results. The less moralistic Chemistry of Change allows its devil a little more sympathy. In fact, Smokey turns out not to be such a bad person. Scruffy and wizened, perhaps, a bit of a lowlife, but charming and trustworthy. Evidently, love is powerful enough to turn Satan into Waylon Jennings. Tilt the edge of the “feminist” card and you’ll find that patriarchy isn’t so bad— with the right guy.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 23, 1999