HERE'S AN INTERESTING concept for a play: It's 1996, and a new medication is being released for HIV and AIDS. The side effects are brutal—skin pain, fat redistribution—but the payoffs are huge. Gay men across the country suddenly have death sentences lifted. What happens when two men in a relationship are suddenly told they have longer than six weeks to live? They're regaining their looks, their careers, and their will to live and fuck and plan more than a few weeks at a time.
Unfortunately, that's only part of the story with Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, the David Zellnik play currently being produced by defunkt theatre. The least interesting character is a wheelchair-bound porn writer named Puppy (Matthew Kern), whose campy Marxist pornos are unfortunately central to the play.
What ties Puppy's plot to the story of recovering HIV patients Jake (played with subtlety and humanity by Andrew Bray) and Samson (Steve Vanderzee), as well as Jake's doomed affair with Addison (Chip Sherman), is a heavy-handed thread about the definition of freedom, centered on Puppy's new porn novel, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, about dissidents in Maoist China.
Kern plays Puppy with glee and gusto. Were the rest of the play as over the top and ridiculous as Puppy's boner-pill dream sequences, porn readings, and conversations with his editor (Vanderzee again, this time a semi-shirtless, cigar-chomping parody of sexcess), Kern's performance would be a knockout. But that's not this play. The rest of the production is an intelligent, funny, bittersweet examination of what happens when an expiration date is lifted from a life, and one is given the ultimate freedom just to live an average number of years.
Such a small cast, with actors doing double or quadruple duty, should offer some unity to the play's disparate parts. Instead, it just makes it even more painfully obvious that there are two plays happening here, and the production never really overcomes that.