The address is 46 Beacon. The place 1970s Boston. Two men meet on a balmy evening to drink gin and listen to records. What happens that night will always be remembered – at least by one of them.
Robert is a British actor, sojourning in a ‘boring ennui play’ in Boston. Alan is a sensitive and lonely high-schooler who’s found respite and reason in Broadway shows and his part-time job at the theatre. Robert has invited Alan to his room in residential hotel 46 Beacon. Despite getting the entire company’s dinner order wrong, Robert likes Alan.
Gin flows and the evening unfolds. Robert gives coded messages (and massages) and Alan naively, and time-to-time coquettishly, receives them. They talk about Alan’s childhood, his siblings, his life (or lack of) at school – anything to make him feel comfortable. Alan catches wind of Robert’s intentions and at first tries to diffuse the situation: did Robert know the house manager at the theatre was a queer? Isn’t that creepy?
Robert continues. He doesn’t want Alan to do anything he doesn’t want to. Robert touches Alan’s face. Robert kisses him. Alan lets him. Alan likes it. Alan likes Robert too.
Full of anxiety, Alan quizzes Robert about his own ‘first’. After much coaxing, Robert confesses his own story, one of guilt and shame. The two make love but afterwards Alan realises perhaps the encounter wasn’t so special to Robert. Alan realises Robert’s in love with his ‘roommate’. He struggles to understand how Robert can have a boyfriend but have sex with other people. He can’t compute how he can mean ‘something’ to Robert but not enough to really mean anything.
Alan just wants to be loved. Accepted. Cherished. Just like the jocks in gym class, Robert won’t give him that. The reality of their age difference is revealed – both numerically and conceptually, Robert’s cynicism (or practicality) like oil on the water of Alan’s naivety (or romanticism). Alan leaves, having learnt vital lessons he both sought and hadn’t thought possible. As one world crumbles, another – we hope – will rise from its ashes.
46 Beacon by Bill Rosenfield is a gentle, meandering trip down a memory lane that is still achingly relevant. Some of its writing expresses succinctly and soulfully the difficulty of wanting to fit in and of learning you never will. Despite being set four decades ago, the discussions of monogamy and commitment, particularly in gay male relationships, remain pertinent.
Characters and their traits are well-observed, especially Alan, who at least in part is inspired by Rosenfield himself. However, the piece lacks vigour and energy, keeping its relaxed, gin-laced tone throughout. Neither stakes nor voices are ever really raised, and a superfluous (if well-meaning and well-delivered) monologue gives the evening a clunky and amateurish start.
The production marks both Rosenfield’s and director Alexander Larr’s West End debut. Larr’s direction is an operation in verisimilitude, which is both highly satisfying and slightly restricting. So truthful are the actors’ delivery and interactions that the scale of the piece’s drama and impact is clipped.
Oliver Coopersmith’s Alan is confused, excitable, loveable and loved-up. It is a compelling and understated performance that shows a maturity beyond Coopersmith’s (at least visible) years. Jay Taylor plays the self-interested and sex-focused Robert with ease.
Ruth Hall’s luxuriously identikit design is perfect for the intimate Trafalgar 2 space. It is thoroughly but conservatively detailed, the definition of ‘well-appointed’, evoking time period and social class through subtle hues and rich woods. In the production’s quest for reality, lighting and sound design are sympathetic and largely unobtrusive, excepting unnaturally loud recordings of showering and male urination.
46 Beacon is about give and take, loss and gain. And there’s a lot to be taken from this reliable, relatable play – most notably how far gay rights have come and how little humans have changed – but it could give us so much more. To be in the league of seminal gay plays such as Boys in the Band, which it namechecks, it need to gain some serious punch, or perhaps lose twenty minutes. It’s enjoyable – and surprisingly humorous – but, like it’s adolescent lead, still learning what it’s trying to be.