Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute
In 2018, Erik (James Aaron Oh) and Bryant (Matt Weimer) are partners navigating the perils and pleasures of an open relationship. Erik, much younger than Bryant, is "on PrEP," a term used for those taking Truvada, a little blue pill that prevents the transmission of HIV with 99% effectiveness. Without the worry of contracting a life-changing (thankfully no longer life-ending) virus, Erik feels free to engage in casual hookups. But when he brings a case of gonorrhea home to Bryant, it exposes conflicts in their relationship that go far beyond the usual perils of non-monogamy. For Erik, the 1980s sound like a sexual paradise: anonymous hookups, glory holes, bathhouses, and all the behavior that led to deadly consequences, as Bryant knows all too well, having lived through it. But Jared, Bryant's first–and, it seems, only–true love, did not.
We meet Jared (Troy Rockett) when Erik opens a roman à clef novel Bryant wrote about his relationship with Jared and its tragic ending. As he reads, scenes of the novel are acted out behind him, revealing Jared's plans for suicide as a way to avoid the horrifyingly slow, painful deaths being experienced by so many of their friends. "So depressing," Erik thinks, putting down the book. After another argument with Bryant, he fails at another attempt at finishing chapter one, choosing instead to suck on his vape pen, gobble down a handful of CBD gummies, take a tug from his vodka-filled flask, and pop his daily Truvada, staring lovingly at the pill bottle and saying "you make everything better." He inserts his ear buds, lays back, and falls into a reverie.
It's here that we meet Truvada itself, in the form of actor Akaina Ghosh, clad in a black skinsuit with lacy blue accents, plucking lazily at an electric guitar. She prefers to be called "Agent 701" ("It's cooler," she says), and she flits through the play like an odd sort of omnipresent Puck, a quasi-magical being with both light and dark sides. When Agent 701 comes upon a sleeping Erik, she gently removes the ear buds and replaces them with a pair of headphones hooked to a Walkman. When Erik wakes, he finds he's transported back to the 1980s, inside Bryant's body. "I'm white now," Erik says at one point, "I can do anything!"
PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute addresses the generation gap that exists between older LGBT people (especially gay men) who lived in a world where HIV was a death sentence, marriage equality felt like a pipe dream, and homophobia ran rampant, and a younger generation who grew up when fewer people cared about other people's sexual orientation, marriage equality was the law of the land, and HIV was a condition more akin to diabetes or high cholesterol. Manageable.
As Liu's plot move back and forth between these two eras, it all takes place on an all-blue set (by Carlos Aceves), with mobile risers and steps, outlined with lights, that make it seem almost as if we are inside the magic blue pill.
Though PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute is finely crafted, Liu's work is let down somewhat by the weaknesses of the cast. As Bryant and Erik, Weimer and Oh lack chemistry. Though they argue and spat, there's no real tension in their interactions, and the emotions they express come across as mere words, not true emotion. As Agent 701, Ghosh is fun to watch, but their character would be well-served by their adding a more impish, trickster energy to Agent 701. Troy Rockett, who plays both Jared and Bryant's doctor, does the best work here. Though his portrayal of Jared lacks a certain tragic pessimism that seems to be in Liu's text, he plays the doctor with a sweet gentleness and patience that makes you wish he was your physician. Though stiff at first, Oh seemed to find his feet as the play went on and further performances of PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute may benefit from his spending more time in the role.
While it may be impossible to change the past–as Jared says at one point, "My story is not yours to rewrite."–Yilong Liu is taking playgoers on a fascinating thought experiment on what could have been, and what might still be.
PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute runs through May 8, 2022, at New Conservatory Theatre Center's Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit NCTCSF.org or call 415-861-8972.