There’s much to be proud of and delighted by in strides made by the gay community over the last dozen years. But with those gains have come some grim new challenges. British playwright Peter Darney explores both in his new play.
London playwright Peter Darney didn’t know anything about the topic of his play, 5 Guys Chillin’, until a friend of his confided that he was a part of the underground “chill” scene – British slang for what American gays know as “P&P,” or party and play. No matter the name (some call it “high and horny”), the game remains the same: a dangerous combination of illegal drugs, multiple sex partners and the tendency to be up for days doing nothing else.
Darney was immediately fascinated by the scene, and when he was asked to pitch something new, he casually mentioned his intention to address the dark world of what the British call “ChemSex.” The interest, he says, “was immediate.”
The show, which opens tonight for a week-long New York run, combines months of interviews Darney cobbled together through chats with men online and during the brief period he worked as a doorman in a club known for such parties.
“I would go online,” he says over coffee in Chelsea, “and I would find guys who were looking for people to ‘chill out’ with them, and I’d message them a few days later because I didn’t want them saying anything while they were high that they might regret later.”
Those interviews were winnowed down to a basic list of five most fascinating characters, upon whom he based the roles in the play, although he also added dialogue from other participants. In the end, there are no words from any of the characters that the playwright didn’t hear firsthand.
“I decided to set the play at a sex party after being told repeatedly that the biggest topics of conversation are other sex parties, what drugs you take and how you manage coming down after it’s all been done,” he explains. The big drugs are GHB, methadrone and crystal meth, and how they work is one thing, but how they work in concert is something else entirely. Taken together, they remove your inhibitions, accelerate your sex drive and make consent a real problem, because you can’t be making informed and smart choices about safer sex when you’re that high. Of course the people who participate in these parties are held responsible for the rise of HIV-positive and Hep-C positive gay men in London.”
Still, Darney came away from the interviews hoping to create a play that depicted human beings, not depraved and drug-addled sex maniacs. “Some have called the play ‘a cautionary tale,’ and I suppose that’s true,” he muses. “But ultimately, my play is about intimacy. Gay people grow up in a world where they have to deny themselves and pretend to be someone else, always having a secret life and living a lie until they move to a city where being gay makes no difference. But you’re still struggling with that inability to have real relationships. Drugs can facilitate intimacy and help you lose your inhibitions for the night, but then when you come down, the guilt and shame actually fuels our internalized homophobia.”
Darney’s play was never meant to preach, he maintains. “No, I set out to make people argue; to hold up a mirror and say, ‘this is our scene.’ I don’t wish to impose my moral code on anyone. I don’t judge people who use drugs; I’ve had my share of great experiences on them. But the way these specific drugs work is in synchronicity. ‘G fits’ are really common in this scene, where people pass out, and sometimes die, but other times are in something like a coma for hours, and are not in a position to control who does what or how to them.”
The greatest tragedy, he concludes, is that this is in part what’s replacing what he calls London’s gay community. “Most gay men in London have been to at least one of these parties,” he says. “And while the social apps do offer a wonderful opportunity for people to connect, Chill-Outs are everywhere, while gay bars around the city are closing because of them.’
So, he says, 5 Guys Chillin’ is about more than the physical damage it does to the participants. “We’re actually losing something very important when these bars close. We’re losing what it means to be in community.”
5 Guys Chillin’ runs through October 9 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, in Manhattan. For tickets, visit sohoplayhouse.com Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
Last modified: September 17, 2019