The Norse gods, you recall, traded the Rhinegold for a castle called Valhalla, where they could live in youth and health forever. But since the gold had a curse on it, their forever lasted only an eon or so before the magic fire consumed them and Valhalla too. I mention this entirely unfunny story, made famous by Richard Wagner, because, improbably enough, it seems to have served as the matrix for Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla, which is extremely funny and a good deal shorter than Wagner’s version. I don’t claim that Rudnick consciously filched the Ring‘s structure. Probably he just turned his mind to Ludwig II, the Wagner-fixated king of Bavaria, and the resemblance to the Ring followed naturally, just as Disneyland arose naturally from thoughts of the compulsive castle-builder Ludwig’s kitsch masterpiece, Neuschwan-stein. Fixations, you see, can be catching.
Valhalla‘s diptych of story features such Wagnerian elements as a rebellious child, several kinds of forbidden love, a bridal substitution, and even a stolen gold object that gets returned at the end. Luckily for us, Rudnick never uses his borrowed materials tendentiously. He tosses them about playfully, like an infant—a preternaturally witty and observant infant, granted—attracted alternately to glittering trinkets and to dangerously sharp utensils. This sophisticated mode of infantility carries truths and pleasures beyond adulthood’s reach. Evaluated by adult dramatic logic, for instance, Rudnick’s play doesn’t parse at all: Its two stories neither intersect nor inform each other; one of them has an ending that seems wholly out of kilter with its substance; the finish places a character with no relevance to either story center stage. But here at Schloss Rudnickstein, in the shadow of the Weiscracken Plateau, dramatic logic gets the tarnhelm pulled down over its head, and only reappears when the playful children desire a quick glance at its face.
We know we’ve escaped realism after barely three minutes, when a 10-year-old boy, in a Depression-era small town in Texas, describes his mother as having “bad hair and no taste,” an evaluation suitable to someone years his senior, living decades later. Rudnick’s unconcern for the realities of small-town Texas life is matched by his lack of interest in the court conduct of 19th-century Bavaria. For him, these concepts are only trampolines on which the playful imagination can bounce freely. And you didn’t want to see a play about Depression-era Texas anyway, much less one about Bavarian court politics. You wanted to see a play that would delight you, so Rudnick wrote Valhalla, in which the increasingly surreal story of young James Avery’s aesthetic and sexual rebellion against Dainsville, Texas, is alternated with the so-crazy-it’s-almost-true story of Ludwig II’s star-crossed passion for, in no particular order, Wagnerian opera, a hunchbacked Austrian princess, and the building of quintessentially kitschy castles. Is any of this true to life, or meaningful? I don’t know; I’ve been too busy laughing to think about that.
Neither James’s nor Ludwig’s dreams of glory end happily. But in Rudnick’s newfangled fairy tales, as in the traditional ones, the ending is never particularly the point. Jung says somewhere in an essay on fairy tales that their point is less the literal meaning of the tale than the psychic energy generated in getting from here to there. The keys are how well the tale is spun and how much you find in it. Rudnick spins with consistent invention, full of tickling amusement with periodic breaks to snack on food for thought. These intrusions, which jar the raffish tale into momentary seriousness or lead it onto morally swampy ground, are jolts of a kind that Wagner and other mythmaking tale-spinners would eschew; it’s a measure of the ease in Rudnick’s writing here that they strengthen the tonal fabric instead of ripping it apart: Not every comic writer can pause to meditate on transcendental beauty without getting shot down for pretension, but Rudnick makes the meditation grow naturally out of the buffoonery. In this sense, the Ring he has most in common with isn’t Wagner’s but Charles Ludlam’s—a spoof that reaffirms the greatness in the object being spoofed.
Rudnick couldn’t achieve that doubleness without Christopher Ashley’s lighthearted, elegantly balanced production, which hits the right note, just firmly enough, at virtually every moment. NYTW’s previous show, The Beard of Avon, needed about eight times as much scenery and nearly twice as many actors to garner far fewer laughs and provoke zero ideas. Ashley and his team create multitudes from a cast of six, all of whom not only give strong, centered performances, but do it with a buoyancy that in several cases lifts them far above their previous work: Candy Buckley and Jack Willis have never sailed this lightly into clowning; Peter Frechette’s moonstruck Ludwig is a cartoon original to rank with Daumier and Chuck Jones. Samantha Soule and Scott Barrow, the young swans who power this amusement-park boat, prove themselves equally adept at comedy high and low. Best of all is Sean Dugan, who gives James Avery a contained wildness that manages to feel authentically Texan, Depression-era, and touchingly adolescent no matter how far afield Rudnick’s gag lines lead him; it’s a juggling act skillful enough to revive vaudeville.