Northlight Theatre

Pastel Refugees is a musical dramatization of a group therapy session for disturbed teenagers. It is a time for angst, a time for song. So join us now as our improbable cast of adolescent head cases attempts to answer the musical question, “What’s wrong with slam dancing on school nights? Wee-ooo.”

First, meet the kids. They’re good kids; they just have problems. There’s Dov, an orthodox Jew who’s a compulsive bather. Chris is a shy white girl, an acid casualty given to non sequiturs. Mickey is an anorexic punk princess who failed to live up to her parents’ expectations. Lonnie and Carla are black kids with an appetite for self-destruction. Lonnie likes to bang his head against the wall, whereas Carla prefers a good overdose. And leading them all toward the light at the end of the tunnel is Rich, a loving care bear of a therapist, complete with cardigan sweater.

As our story opens, it’s not a beautiful day in the neighborhood. It’s the eve of Dov’s heartrending departure for an asylum in Kansas. And joining the group is Carla, fresh from having her stomach pumped. So it’s an especially tough time right now, as the group must both let go and accept. Perhaps it’s this very tension that prompts the kids, at the drop of a cue line, to tell their stories. And when they don’t tell their stories, they sing them, often to the accompaniment of Rich’s 12-string guitar, which he just happens to have on hand. Meanwhile, as Carla so aptly puts it, “Shit happens.”

And it happens in a relentlessly predictable pattern. For instance, Lonnie loves his father even though he broke Lonnie’s foot and abandoned the family. What a bummer, but perhaps we can learn something from this. So Rich asks the incredibly deep question, “Can you love someone who hurts you?” It’s a tough question, and Rich is quick to remind everyone that there are no easy answers. Yet Lonnie, in his frustration, launches into a wall-banging fit and has to be subdued by one of the many paternal bear hugs that Rich dispenses in this play. Then, to top it all off, Rich administers the cathartic enema, “You wanted to be hitting him, but you hit yourself instead.” This pattern repeats, more or less, with each of the kids. Rich opens them up. They spill their guts, have fits, sing songs, and whatnot. And then they bond together and learn something from it all, neatly summed up in one of Rich’s sententious epigrams.

Apparently the authors of Pastel Refugees (Greg Fleming and Jeff Berkson), both child therapists themselves, are trying to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the problems child psychologists face. They’ve selected an assortment of mental disorders–a representative sampling–from anorexia to compulsive bathing, and tried to manufacture characters out of them. This accounts for the didactic tone of the play, as well as the unnaturally distilled, textbook disorder that each character portrays. And, although they’re all different on the outside–they even look like the cast of a McDonald’s commercial–the source of the kids’ distress generally boils down to bad parental relationships. As if you didn’t guess that already.

Of course there’s only so much that a therapist can do. He can fold his arms, listen patiently, tell a personal anecdote or two. He can even play the role of surrogate papa bear, helping the kids to bond into a facsimile of the family they never had. But it’s only temporary therapy, and in the case of Dov, who’s about to graduate to the big house, it’s a complete failure. This is where Pastel Refugees tactfully points its finger at the audience, because it’s us, the parents, the season ticket holders, who must reach out to these kids and make a place in the world for them. And Pastel Refugees is here to educate us, and compel us to provide the loving care these kids so desperately need.

So educate me already. Don’t feed me this psychological gruel, this Learning Annex introduction to Adolescent Psych. How can I possibly be compelled by these stereotypes? The black kids with all that anger and pain welling up inside them. The bourgeois white kids with their crazy ways and hairdos. And oy, God forbid we should see a Jewish boy who can sit down and have a rational conversation with his mother. Give me a break. Give me characters, not cartoons.

Unfortunately, the cast proves incapable of giving these characters a third dimension. They’re not bad actors, but what can they do? Other than the occasional disagreement (usually resolved with a hug), the adolescent characters don’t interact all that much. Most scenes are presided over by Rich, who either deals with the kids one-on-one or moderates their dialogues like Phil Donahue. This puts Peter Van Wagner (as Rich) in the key role. And the weird thing about Van Wagner’s characterization is that Rich comes off as being so nice, so patient, so understanding. He does everything but drag a cross across the stage. It makes you wonder, what’s Rich’s problem?

Curiously enough, this issue is never addressed. Rich has no personal problems. He’s perfect. Although there’s one scene where Chris is having an acid flashback, I guess, and Dov is pressing her, trying to get her to make sense. Then Rich intercedes, warning Dov to back off. Is Rich protecting the emotionally frail Chris, or is he guarding his domain, his exalted role as therapist, from the potential usurper? If the latter is the case–and I don’t for a minute think that the authors intended it that way, not consciously anyway–then Rich becomes guilty of feeding off of and perhaps even sustaining the disorders that make him necessary. But that’s another drama, and one that’s not nearly upbeat or sanitized enough to make into a musical.

Which brings me reluctantly to the subject of music. The good news is that Pastel Refugees showcases some decent vocalists, particularly Darius de Haas and Sybil Walker (Lonnie and Carla) in “Loneliness Is One Long All-Nighter” and Sarah Hummon (Chris) in “I Can’t Say I Love You.” Van Wagner even plays a pretty good 12-string. The bad news is the music and lyrics, by Jeff Berkson. It’s like the Partridge family checks into the Betty Ford Clinic. Rock, rap, punk, blues, you name it–Berkson somehow manages to turn it into elevator music. Most embarrassing of all is the act-one closer, “What’s Wrong With Slam Dancing on School Nights?” Not exactly the occasion for stage diving.

Thinking back on it, the thing that disturbs me most about this play is all the hugging. Sure, care and support is a good thing but, by offering it as the only solution, the play tends to minimize the seriousness of adolescent mental disorders. “Have you hugged your kids today?” It’s bumper-sticker psychology. It’s too pat–as in patronizing. Adolescents, like the kids in the film River’s Edge, live in a strangely impenetrable world. Pastel Refugees doesn’t enter that world; it only redefines it according to adult standards. And that’s what screwed these kids up in the first place.