Blooming Brilliant! Defunkt Theatre’s “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”

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(photo by Heather Keeling)

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

It’s 1996 and Jake (Andrew Bray) and Samson (Steve Vanderzee), an HIV positive couple in New York who have expected to die from their disease, are adjusting to a second life, thanks to the advent of new anti-retroviral drugs.

Samson is a tightly wound executive at a pharmaceutical company, who has thrown himself back into his work. Jake’s a hypochondriac, afraid to believe his good fortune is real.

Their relationship is the backdrop of David Zellnik’s fantastic “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” (at the Backdoor Theater through March 22). Hilarious, raucous, heartfelt and thoughtful, the play is a stunner, and Defunkt Theatre’s current production of it should not be missed.

Zellnik’s narrator is Puppy, a Marxist pornography writer who, due to an accident, has lost most of the use of his lower body and uses a wheelchair.

This narration, shifting seamlessly between Puppy’s gleefully subversive stories, and updates regarding Jake and Samson’s dramas, gives the play a wonderful elasticity. The jokes are plentiful and sharp, but never at the expense of the story’s emotional resonance.

Matthew Kern is spot on as Puppy. His voice and expressions radiate a magnetic, cartoonish glee during his monologues; likewise, he shows a deft hand in his scenes with Bray’s Jake, to whom Puppy is attracted, balancing the neediness, affection, manipulation and sorrow all present in their relationship.

Jake comes to stay with Puppy when Samson travels for work. Puppy, reluctant to pursue romance for himself, having experienced rejections to his disabilities, vicariously shepherds the newly healthy Jake back into the world of sex and dating, bringing his friend to a shoe store staffed by the Venezuelan clerk Addison.

As enacted by the sublime Chip Sherman, Addison is a fascinating, kinetic mix of lothario and homophobe, romance and danger. What, in the wrong hands might be an off-putting blend of mixed messages, in Sherman’s becomes irresistibly compelling.

It’s a measure of the show’s depth and charm that Puppy’s introduction of Jake to Addison, whom we learn Puppy has visited countless times himself, grows in resonance upon reflection. In the moment Zellnik deploys so many jokes, operating on so many levels, one barely has time to process them.

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The action itself is rich on several levels of its own, regarding disability and privilege, and friendship and love, not to mention race and class, but the script and direction never signpost those themes in any ponderous or pretentious ways.

Instead the scene, and the play itself, have a kind of effortlessness to them. The production’s like that person you meet at a party who’s so funny and charming that it’s only the next day you realize how brilliant she is.

Jake’s new romance awakens a dormant playfulness and confidence in him, which Bray, who brings a charming, befuddled everyman quality to his part, handles delightfully.

Jake’s dalliances complicate his relationships with Puppy and Samson. leading to a remarkable passage between he and Puppy where everything previously unsaid (and undone) is explored.

Jake’s scenes with Samson are the only moments where the play’s remarkable energy sags a bit. Samson, offstage so often, is not as well developed as the other characters and his wants and desires never get the same airing.

Vanderzee’s talents are showcased more delightfully in his brief role as Al, Puppy’s ridiculously gruff pornography agent.

Defunkt’s “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” is one of those special, seemingly alchemical productions, where the right cast and crew meet the right script and the results feel magical. Catch it before it’s gone.

“Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” from Defunkt Theatre at the Backdoor Theater through March 22. http://defunktheatre.com/home.html