KPBS AIRDATE: December 1, 1993
“Friday Night Refugees” introduces us to a culture within a culture within a culture. “Hi, I’m Billy, and I’m an alcoholic,” it begins. Billy is addicted, recovering and gay. His weekly twelve-step group calls itself the Friday Night Refugees. And the homegrown play he appears in, is presented by the Progress Not Perfection Players — all addicted, recovering and gay.
The earnestness of this 16-member cast overrides its amateur status. The piece is less theater for them than life. The credits list sobriety dates. When they recite the 12-step closing prayer, they really seem to mean it. But this is not just footlight catharsis. And it’s not simply voyeuristic, though it does open the window on the seamy side of gay life and the hard-knocks realities of addiction and recovery.
If, as Hamlet told the players, theater is meant to hold a mirror up to nature, then “Friday Night Refugees” accomplishes the goal, with a magnified reflection that shows us more than a few zits and warts we’d probably rather ignore. But they won’t go away.
The characters may be a bit overblown — there’s the queen of compulsive shoppers, and the whore of Hillcrest, the Cosmic Man who tunes in to Uranus, and the black-clad, Beat-type, lesbian poet at Soho — but they are also somehow real, and probably based on real people, when writers Tom Vegh and Patrick Dieli first workshopped the piece last year, as a project of the Hillcrest-based Lesbian and Gay Men’s Community Center. Some of the cast members come from Stepping Stone, the East San Diego recovery center for homeless gay, lesbian and bisexual alcoholics.
The 2+-hour, 17-scene, two-act play could definitely use a red pencil and a pair of shears. A lot is redundant, but a lot should be saved. The story is pretty predictable: young Billy, wallowing in a life of drugs, sex and unsavory companions, decides to make a break and attend a 12-step meeting. The act-one cliffhanger leaves us with the burning question: Will he make it to his first anniversary of sobriety, or will he be sucked back into the sewer of his former life? The suspense isn’t great, but the backsliding seductions and the 24-hour support system inherent in recovery are graphically portrayed.
There’s clever, catty repartée, but not always the timing to make it meow. The rhythm of Tom Vegh’s staging is inconsistent, too. Almost everyone seems tentative, uncertain; sometimes, they appear lead-limbed, as if they’re plodding through a pool of petroleum jelly. Nobody ever really lets go, but maybe that’s because for them, this is ultra-serious stuff.
There are some light, saving moments, though. Two of them come in the six-song score, written by the high-profile, San Francisco gay singing duo, Romanovsky and Phillips. Ralph Estrada and Malcolm Miller dis each other to death in “Sisters in Sobriety,” a gay sendup of “Bosom Buddies” from “Mame.” Those two, teamed with actress Ann Richardson, are the three standouts in the cast, and they do a rousing rendition of “Find Your Higher Power,” kind of like a recovery version of “Friendship” from “Anything Goes.” You remember: “If you’re ever in a jam, here I am.”
The rest of the score is a lot less clever, and considerably less tuneful; the melody line is so unpredictable, even the singers don’t seem to know where it’s going next. But one thing is certain: There’s a strong message of hope here. A spirit of ‘You can do it if you try’ — whether you’re gay, straight, addicted or not. And there’s one wonderful cross-linguistic line to live by: “In Chinese, the word for ‘crisis’ is the same as for ‘opportunity.'” I’ll try to keep that in mind when calamity comes calling.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.