The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? opens with Tommy’s address to the audience in which he introduces himself by thanking all the people who have made him the freeloading, shoplifting, wittily charming scourge of convention that he is. Walt Disney and Tonto, the Wolf Man and Chuck Berry, Ma and Pa Kettle, Fidel Castro and Thomas Jefferson (“who said something about God forbid we should ever be twenty years without a rebellion”)—to these and other unlikely figures he dedicates the act.

Having been presented with this rebel’s pedigree, the audience, in the first of many flashbacks and loosely associated episodes, is whisked away to St. Petersburg, Florida, 1952, to one of Tommy’s early run-ins with authority. When asked on a civics test to list the ten most admired men in the United States, Tommy writes “Holden Caulfield,” J. D. Salinger’s fictional protagonist in Catcher in the Rye (1951), ten times, an act for which he predictably receives an F grade. The combined forces of parents and principal make him recant and produce the acceptable list of establishment icons; however, Tommy emerges feeling Holden’s righteous disgust at these “phonies,” longing to be off in Times Square with his fictional idol, smoking Lucky cigarettes and pining over Jan Moody. By the time he does escape the confines of St. Petersburg for what he insists on calling the Big Apple, he is a confirmed malcontent, pitted against the tyrannical power of officialdom, plotting to blow up the country and start over again. As he explains, “We can blow it up nice or we can blow it up tough. What I’m doing now is nice.” The pattern of Tommy’s defiance has been established, but so far his anarchic assaults on authority have remained a kind of playful sniping.

The scene changes to the streets of New York City, where Tommy and Ben Delight are panhandling, lamenting the increased competition from “fake Buddhist monks” on their corner, rehearsing the moral collapse of the United States, and extolling the value of traveling light (Tommy carries only a toothbrush, change of shorts, autographed photo of James Dean, and a nun’s habit). Ben, an old actor who claims he spent his career in Paul Muni’s shadow, has never seen or heard of James Dean, but he is one of the few people to have witnessed Tommy’s disastrous one-line performance in the “humorless, pedantic, philosophically sophomoric, cliché-ridden and plagiarized” play Kumquat. Ben’s amused recital of this embarrassing failure catapults Tommy into a savage attack on Ben as an old, impotent loser, an insult he just as quickly withdraws and tries to smooth over by promising Ben new clothes from Bloomingdale’s. Tommy flags a cab, lights a joint, and blithely ignores the cab fare when they alight in front of the department store.

The lights come up on a row of pay toilets in the ladies’ room of Bloomingdale’s. Behind one of the doors, Tommy is singing “Shenandoah.” Standing up and looking down into the adjoining booth, he sees Nedda Lemon, who comes charging out brandishing her cello case. Tommy promptly...

(The entire section is 1277 words.)