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An irresistable attraction: Daniel Gold, left, and Matt Stinton
in Famous Door's production of Beautiful Thing.
A feisty Chicago company aims to carve a niche in New York
By Albert Williams
With its Off-Broadway debut this month, Chicago's Famous Door Theatre Company is ready to cross a major threshold - and they're bringing their door with them. Since its debut in 1987, this Windy City company has marked each new production by emulating a long-standing tradition at its namesake, a legendary New York jazz club where musicians would scratch their names into the door after a gig. On Feb. 14, members of the troupe's Beautiful Thing, playing at New York's Cherry Lane Theatre, will gather in the lobby and continue this peculiar wood-carving ritual, etching their monikers into a scarred-up old door transported to Greenwich Village just for the occasion.
Valentine's Day, the holiday of chocolates and secret love, is an appropriate opening date for Beautiful Thing, the 1993 London hit that received its U.S. premiere from Famous Door last spring. Liverpool-bred playwright Jonathan Harvey's romantic comedy tells the saga of two teenage boys - working-class kids living in single-parent homes in a crowded South London public-housing estate - who fall in love right under the noses of their oblivious elders. Jamie, a shy, sports-hating 15-year-old who can rattle off showbiz trivia with astonishing adroitness idolizes his schoolmate and next-door neighbor, Ste. Soon, their attraction becomes irresistible in spite of the overwhelming odds against them - adolescent angst, peer pressure and parental conflicts notwithstanding. Best known to American audiences from its 1995 movie version, Beautiful Thing came to Famous Door's attention in 1993. When the stage rights became available again in 1997, "everything just fell into place," recalls artistic director Dan Rivkin. Rivkin brought in Chicago director Gary Griffin, whose credits range from experimental storefront productions to suburban dinner theatre musicals. The show opened in May 1998 for a two-month run, but its strong crossover appeal made it an almost instant hit, and it was extended to the end of the year. As with countless itinerant theatre companies near and far, success came in dribs and drabs to Famous Door. The ensemble was launched when actor Marc Grapey, then an intern at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre handed a script to Rivkin. The script was Black and Blue, English writer Peter Fieldson's biographical drama about playwright Joe Orton. The play's American premiere - presented in a renovated laundromat in Chicago's seedy Uptown neighborhood - heralded the company as one of a wave of edgy theatre ensembles that proliferated in Chicago in the 1980's. "Steppenwolf really provided a spark for me you know. Hey they did it, it's possible'" says Rivkin, who hails from the Chicago suburbs and supports his acting career by selling fire and security s systems to corporate highrises. In the ensuing decade, many of these young Chicago troupes fizzled or floundered as their members either headed off for bicoastal success or gave up theatre in favor of steadier careers. But Famous Door stayed together even after co-founder Grapey (stiII an ensemble member) relocated to Los Angeles. Subsequent productions have included Hellcab Does Christmas, a decidedly dark comedy about a city taxi driver's encounters with a "motley crew of druggies, drunks and assholes." The play started as a holiday special, but, under the stripped-down title Hellcab, it's now in its sixth year as one of Chicago's most popular late-night shows. Rivkin attributes much of Famous Door's staying power to its lack of a subscriber base. Not being, restrained by a rigid subscriber season has given the company flexibility, allowing it to take Beautiful Thing on the road, for example. "Having no set schedule allows us to get things just right." say Rivkin. And with their New York bow this month, the ensemble promises once again to do just that.