By Don DeLillo. Directed by Craig Hall. A Virtual Stage production.
At Performance Works until May 22
Talented young directors are worth their weight in gold. Bring out the ingots; with this production of Valparaiso, Craig Hall firmly establishes himself as a fresh and forceful artistic presence.
Don DeLillo builds his script from a simple premise: a guy named Michael Majeski heads off on a short business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, but ends up in Valparaiso, Chile. When he returns home, he becomes a minor media celebrity, and nearly loses his mind.
Our culture is so saturated with information, so bombarded by disparate viewpoints, that we feel starved for the authentic and absolute. Ironically, television, the medium responsible for much of the overload, also promises relief, an endless immersion in the unmatchable reality of the present.
Media output is vulgarly constructed, of course, and DeLillo has fun satirizing its manipulations. Interviewers mould Majeski's responses, coaching him to use the present tense, becoming fetishistic about personal details, like the fact that Majeski's wife once jerked him off in the back of a cab. DeLillo's ideas find their most satisfying theatrical expression in his play's second act with a talk-show host named Delfina. Delfina is Oprah gone bad--or Oprah gone worse. When Delfina wakes up in the morning, she has no idea who she is. She only becomes coherent when she's in the studio, endowed with life and meaning by her viewers. "I want your naked, shit-most self," she tells Majeski as she psychologically cannibalizes him. Aiming for a kind of catharsis, she forces him to confront the vacuity of his celebrity and, beyond that, his sense of identity. Delfina is much further gone than Majeski, but, like the medium she represents, it seems that she can only perpetuate, and never transcend, the emptiness she helps to produce.
Hall's direction and some outstanding performances make the most of this work. Using starkly contrasting rhythms, James Long plays a number of different interviewers. His menacingly languorous first character moves like a drugged shark as he shifts his body and turns his permanent grin toward his subject. As embodied by Andy Thompson, fidgety Majeski has no idea what to make of the interviewer's slow motion. Hall has set up this opening scene so that it expresses Majeski's sense of dislocation. That's a smart thing to do.
Erin Wells is a wonder as Delfina: the character's perfect, burnished exterior seems in constant danger of implosion into a narcissistic void. And Wells never loses the maniacal singularity of purpose, the dedication to illogic that makes Delfina absurdly funny.
This trip to Valparaiso is full of fascinating thematic turbulence. Nonetheless, under Hall's direction, the flight is remarkably smooth.