'PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute' - Strong Medicine Needs More Regimen

by Jim Gladstone

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday April 19, 2022

Bryant (Matt Weimer), Erik (James Aaron Oh), and Jared (Troy Rockett) in 'PrEp Play, or Blue Parachute' at New Conservatory Theatre Center
Bryant (Matt Weimer), Erik (James Aaron Oh), and Jared (Troy Rockett) in 'PrEp Play, or Blue Parachute' at New Conservatory Theatre Center  (Source:Lois Tema)

Exploring the intellectual and emotional complexities of the generation gap between gay men who grew up in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and those who came of age with prophylactic tenofovir pills in easy reach, "PrEp Play, or Blue Parachute," now in a world premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, will provoke many valuable post-show conversations.

Playwright Yilong Liu, 31 years old and a PrEP user himself, doesn't put a thumb on either side of the scale when his protagonist couple, Erik, in his 20s, and Bryant, in his 50s, come into conflict over the younger man's happy adoption of the regimen.

To Erik (James Aaron Oh, convincingly callow), who makes his nominal living as a dog walker, a daily dose of Truvada allows him to enjoy searching, self-actualizing sexual adventures that he associates not just with his Generation Z zeitgeist, but with a pre-HIV era of gay men's liberation.

Erik (James Aaron Oh) and Jared (Troy Rockett)  in 'PrEp Play, or Blue Parachute' at New Conservatory Theatre Center
Erik (James Aaron Oh) and Jared (Troy Rockett) in 'PrEp Play, or Blue Parachute' at New Conservatory Theatre Center  (Source: Lois Tema)

He views Bryant's refusal to go Tru' blue as a sort of shell-shocked prudery, believing that his older partner's personal evolution was flash-frozen in 1986 when an HIV+ former partner, Jared (Troy Rockett, effectively conveying both warmth and desperation), committed suicide by leaping from a Manhattan rooftop.

To school teacher and one-time novelist Bryant (Matt Weimer, one of our best local actors, surprisingly whiny and one-note here), the epidemic was a clarifying fire, reinforcing what seems to be his innate, earnest preference for romantic, monogamous sexual and emotional relationships. His novel, occasionally read aloud from, seems a hybrid of Larry Kramer's "Faggots" and Andrew Holleran's "Dancer from the Dance."

While Bryant acknowledges his own neuroses to a degree and works hard to resist contempt for Erik's sexual explorations, he can't let go of a sense (perhaps subconsciously fueled by jealousy) that Bryant and his peers' libertine sensibilities are disrespectful to their gay forebears who were lost to AIDS.

At its best, Liu's writing gleams with faceted ironies: In 1986, Bryant beseeches Jared to try experimental HIV treatments, such as AZT, but in 2018, he discourages Erik's use of a preventative drug; the titular "blue parachute" metaphor refers at once to the way that Erik can jump into playful debauchery with a minimal worry, and the notion that, had PrEP been available decades earlier, the fate of Troy's leap from on high might have been avoided.

But the play's effectiveness is weakened by Liu's high-flown aspiration. As the script grows overstuffed with ideas, Erik meta-jokingly remarks that things are becoming very "Tony Kushner," which underscores both Liu's ambition and his overreach.

Agent 701 (Akaina Ghosh), Bryant (Matt Weimer), and Erik (James Aaron Oh) in 'PrEp Play, or Blue Parachute' at New Conservatory Theatre Center
Agent 701 (Akaina Ghosh), Bryant (Matt Weimer), and Erik (James Aaron Oh) in 'PrEp Play, or Blue Parachute' at New Conservatory Theatre Center  (Source: Lois Tema)

True to his own Gen Z sensitivities as well as his personal background as an immigrant to the U.S., Liu aims to show the world through a lens of intersectionality. So Erik is Chinese-born, which amplifies his take on PrEP as part of a liberated, individualistic society; Jared is African-American, which is used to provide some rationale for his resistance to be "experimented on" by the white American medical establishment, given the likes of the Tuskegee syphilis study.

Yes, Tony Kushner managed to work Judaism, Mormonism, and Communism into his HIV epic, but "Angels In America" was six hours long, compared to PrEP Play's two. It was also continually edited and rewritten over more than a decade, then further revised before major revivals, not to mention Kushner's luck and genius. In its debut iteration, "PrEP Play"'s intersection becomes a traffic jam of underdeveloped notions.

The play's biggest pitfall is perhaps its most blatant borrowing from Kushner: The introduction of fantastical, magic realist elements. Rather than ghosts and angels, Liu quite cleverly comes up with Agent 701, a spiky personification of Truvada, with an electric guitar slung over their shoulder.

The part is well-played, with a chilly but seductive equanimity by Akaina Ghosh, but here's the rub: Among "PrEP Play"'s most significant points is that drugs are not inherently good or evil; that morality, and all its relativity, lies in the perspectives and motivations of individuals. In Agent 701, Liu has written a central character without a point of view.

Anthropomorphizing a drug regimen may be an audacious coup de showbiz, but taken in combination with Aiden Walker's direction, its side effects include arresting the momentum of real human drama.

"PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute," through May 8 at NCTC. 25 Van Ness Ave. $25-$65. (415) 861-8972. www.nctsf.org

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