Steven McElroy's eyes burn with a manic glee as he rips into the opening monologue of playwright David Zellnik's Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom. McElroy portrays Puppy, a disabled writer of gay, Marxist pornography. He's reading excerpts from his latest work, "Plutonium Rod," to the audience. The purple prose includes references to "glow in the dark" sperm and an orgasm with the force of "an explosion that rivaled the unjustified American bombing of Hiroshima."
This humorous approach to sex and politics is found throughout Zellnik's play. Set in late 1996 and early 1997, Flowers is a new variation on the AIDS play genre, examining life with AIDS in the age of protease inhibitors. Although the subject matter is serious, Zellnik tackles it with wit and a delightfully wicked irreverence.
He is aided in this effort by the crisp direction of Dave Mowers and a fabulous ensemble cast that makes even the more problematic aspects of the script palatable. In addition to McElroy, the play features Grant James Varjas as Puppy's best friend, Jake; Andy Paris as Jake's long-term boyfriend Samson; and Michael Irby as a variety of characters, including a Latino shoe salesman with whom Jake falls in love. The actors seem to genuinely have fun with their roles, particularly in the porn fantasy sequences. Irby as the living embodiment of Plutonium Rod is especially hilarious, strutting across the stage with a booming voice and a grin that won't quit.
The play's title is taken from a 1957 speech by Mao Tse-tung, an address to political dissidents in a Communist re-education camp. Puppy wants to set his first full-length political porn novel in this locale; he sees it as an AIDS metaphor, with the dissidents being given a false sense of security and a chance for freedom before it is taken away from them. Puppy doesn't make the explicit connection to protease inhibitors, but the play as a whole does.
The premise of Flowers revolves around how people who expect death react when they are given a chance at life. The play doesn't try for political correctness; it questions the fetishization of race and class even as it exploits that fetishization. Likewise, Zellnik's choice to center the play around a disabled gay man is daring. However, while recognizing Puppy as a fully functioning sexual being, one still wishes he didn't have to live his sex life vicariously through Jake's exploits. The power dynamic of this relationship is also questioned within the play's narrative, but much is left unresolved.
The play is ambitious, tackling a range of subjects including sex, love, monogamy, long-term relationships, drug cocktails, side effects, and erectile dysfunction. It is a credit to all involved that the production never gets bogged down by the many issues it deals with. Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom makes for a witty, intelligent, absolutely hilarious romantic comedy.