Jordan Barbour in "Eighty-Sixed." Photo by Simpatika
Welcome back, Diversionary. The third-oldest LGBTQIA+ theater in the country and one of the most reliable among San Diego’s smaller companies, is finally producing in person again after the long COVID hiatus. It’s back after a $2.5 million renovation to its University Heights building. The money was well spent. A new lobby and bar downstairs and snappy multi-colored seats in the upstairs theater are just a few of the very impressive upgrades.
More important, the world premiere of the musical “Eighty-Sixed” is the ideal production to take advantage of the expanded mainstage theater space. A cast of 12 and a four-piece band might have been crowded prior to the renovation, but in the new Diversionary there’s plenty of room – and more seats for patrons as well.
“Eighty-Sixed” is a well-produced, thoughtful return for Diversionary. Based on a novel by David B. Feinberg, the musical (book by Jeremy J. King, music and lyrics by Sam Salmond) explicitly and painfully revisits a year – 1986 – when the AIDS crisis was in full nightmare mode for the gay community. But as we know, AIDS was a crisis for all America, not that the Reagan presidency treated it as such.
The musical directed by Kevin Newbury begins with BJ (an intentionally un-subtle name for the lead character) going through a jar in which he keeps the names and phone numbers of all of the casual partners he’s had over time. The jar becomes a recurring symbol for BJ’s most conflicted relationship of all – the one not with his sexuality but with his lifestyle.
When New Yorker BJ (Preston Sadleir) is recognized by a “stranger” named Bob (Sean Doherty) and doesn’t remember him back at all, his self-doubt begins. His discovery later that Bob has AIDS and is getting more sick by the minute heightens the self-doubt and inundates him with fear. What was his relationship to Bob, the one he can’t remember?
“Eighty-Sixed” is populated by many peripheral characters … perhaps too many. Those who do seem essential to the storytelling are BJ’s gay friend Dennis, who’s a social worker (Wilfred Paloma), his straight friend Rachel (Farah Dinga), and Dave (Jordan Barbour), hospitalized Bob’s partner and, under the circumstances, his caregiver.
Then again, maybe the presence of so many other men in BJ’s life, including Richard (Frankie Alicea-Ford), with whom he thinks he’s having a monogamous relationship, is essential to the plot point that BJ can’t keep track of who he knows and how well, an issue that the AIDS epidemic has forced upon him.
With 18 songs and a fair amount of dialogue and conversations, “Eighty-Six” takes its time reaching an inevitable conclusion. Some scenes, especially those with a club singer and mirror ball, feel extraneous, and frankly the hospital encounters with Sadleir and Doherty, sensitively performed by both, overpower everything else.
That said, the tragedy of “Eighty-Sixed” isn’t the only component of the musical, which in its sincerest tunes touches on the importance of friendship, sacrifice and knowing oneself. The BJ character has to carry the load as it is he who navigates the four-way intersection of desire, identity, guilt and compassion. Sadleir manages the challenge, supported well by Doherty and Barbour.
“Eighty-Sixed” would be too heavy without some humor. Rachel is a familiar type – the straight gal with the gay male friend – but she has a few funny lines, particularly when she, BJ and Dennis are at brunch. More bittersweet is BJ’s, Bob’s and Dave’s song in the hospital “What About the Weather” when trying not to discuss the omnipresent subject. And Bob refers to serious topics as “heavy pizza.” It’s glib and wrenching at the same time.
The “Eighty-Sixed” backing band is in the shadows but very much a part of this show’s appeal: keyboardist/conductor Patrick Marion, bassist Christian Reeves, drummer Nobuko Kemmotsu and guitarist PJ Bovee.
“Eighty-Sixed” is performed without an intermission. At nearly two hours, it’s a long sit. Thanks, Diversionary, for the new comfortable seats.
“Eighty-Sixed” runs through June 26 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.