‘Blood SPRAYS Everywhere. And I Mean EVERYWHERE . . . Get The Audience WET!”
That’s an actual stage direction from the script of “Zombie: The American,” the new Woolly Mammoth production set in a future United States where the president is gay, a near-civil war is being semi-contained by African peacekeepers and, oh, yeah, it’s entirely possible that a horde of zombies is living under the White House.
But, more important: Whose blood sprays everywhere? And will the audience really get wet?
Answering that first question would spoil this simultaneously absurd and thought-provoking play, written by Woolly Mammoth veteran Robert O’Hara, known for subversively tackling racism, homophobia and other issues in such works as “Antebellum” and “Bootycandy.” Regarding that second question, no one could say exactly — in the days leading up to the play’s opening, the staging of its gorier moments was still evolving.
“I know in that particular moment, which leads into the end of the play, I should be sort of ‘Carrie’-d: covered in blood,” says Sean Meehan, who plays President Thom Valentine.
“It is a Robert O’Hara play,” he adds. “So I’m sure they will try to go pretty far over the top.”
O’Hara does have a reputation for going over the top, and “Zombie: The American” is in keeping with that sensibility. But although murder, blood and the undead are all part of the proceedings, they’re not ultimately the play’s raison d’être.
“The zombies are not the predominant story line,” O’Hara says. “What I was really doing was taking a Jacobean tragedy and ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and mixing it together.”
“Zombie: The American” does indeed play as both classic political drama and barbed satire. But if “Jacobean tragedy” and that reference to Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear war send-up don’t quite resonate, just think of it as a mashup of your favorite Sunday night cable shows — “Game of Thrones” meets “The Walking Dead” with mad dashes of “Veep.”
The central action of “Zombie: The American” takes place in 2063, when Valentine, the first gay commander in chief, is trying to get reelected, calm tensions on the West Coast, where a strong appetite for a mineral called Cotton XP has turned that region into the wild, wild West, and figure out how the United States will repay England for bailing the nation out of a financial crisis. As for those zombies that may be lurking in the White House basement — which, in this vision of the future, is at Mount Rushmore because the East Coast has been eradicated by floods — they serve as both threat and metaphor for the issues — racism and xenophobia, among them — that the country is still failing to confront.
“There’s just craziness going on in the show,” Meehan says. “But there are actually very deep points being made about America’s history and our lack of acceptance of our past, and how we must accept our past and move forward.”
Meehan says that when Valentine is speaking to the public, his portrayal borrows a little from President Obama but that “once the play truly begins and you’re involved in all the things going on inside the Oval Office, I think he’s pretty much his own character.”
Though he may be playing a gay president, O’Hara says that in terms of the satire, Meehan’s Valentine is the straight man, a rational and conflicted politician reacting to the out-of-control advisers around him.
“I don’t get a lot of the big laughs,” Meehan admits, though he adds, “Even though I am the straight man, I have a couple of gems in there that I get to say.” (One such gem: “Raise the terror alert to pink polka dot.”)
Meehan also gets to spill some blood, though exactly how much — and how much of it will land on the audience — remains to be seen . . . and possibly felt.
“I don’t know how much physical blood gets on the audience,” O’Hara says. “But I think metaphorical blood will be all over them by the end of the play.”
Chaney is a pop culture writer and critic who contributes frequently to The Washington Post. Her book, “As If!: The Oral History of ‘Clueless’ as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew,” will be released in July.
ZOMBIE: THE AMERICAN
Woolly Mammoth Theatre,
641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net.
Dates: Through June 21.