Theater archives

Don DeLillo’s Chile Dish


“We need to know everything. We need to show everything,” says a character in Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso. Michael Majeski, the play’s protagonist, seems only too happy to oblige. He sets out on a routine business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, but a series of mishaps sends him to Valparaiso, Florida, and finally to Valparaiso, Chile. This traveling snafu makes Majeski a celebrity, and his life is given over to countless interviews for television, radio, and the newspapers. He answers the same questions repeatedly, using the same words and “the same thoughtful pauses,” and he begins to imagine that people deeply need to hear his story. “The man is making the most modern journey possible,” wrote DeLillo in an essay written for Valparaiso‘s 1999 premiere at American Repertory Theatre, “witnessed by millions, into the secret places of identity and transcendence.”

DeLillo, the 65-year-old author of a dozen novels—including the celebrated Underworld and Mao II—is not as open to public self-revelation as Majeski. “It’s my nature to be quiet about most things,” he said in 1979. “Even the ideas in my work. When you try to unravel something you have written, you belittle it in a way. It was created as a mystery, in part.”

In the theater, however, one job of the artist is to unravel the mysteries of a play. The Rude Mechanicals Theater Company, whose members hail mainly from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, will offer its interpretation of Valparaiso in a limited workshop run at the Blue Heron Arts Center beginning July 11. The company gave DeLillo an open invitation to rehearsals, and—contrary to expectations—this supposedly elusive author has attended.

Hal Brooks, the play’s director, workshopped a production of Valparaiso last year for the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. Lincoln Center’s Anne Cattaneo arranged for DeLillo to attend the seminar to work with Brooks, and the two hit it off at once. Brooks was particularly impressed by DeLillo’s humility about his work. “He provided an outline for me and allowed me to fill it in,” says Brooks. “That was really generous.” David Wheeler, who directed the play’s world premiere at ART, feels DeLillo’s interest in the theater is the natural extension of his interest in human behavior. “One has the impression when with him that his marvelous antennae are taking in the world,” Wheeler says. “He’s totally aware of what actors are doing and subtle shifts in their performances.” When Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company mounted its 2000 production, the director, Frank Galati, changed the order of scenes, cut them internally, and reduced a two-act play to a single, brisk act. DeLillo unblinkingly approved it all. “He’s open to every suggestion that comes his way,” Wheeler says. “Instead of rejecting, negating, fighting it, he says, ‘Let’s see what it’s like.’ That’s extraordinary.”

Galvanized by his experience with DeLillo at the Directors Lab, Brooks approached the Rude Mechanicals about adding the play to their 2001-02 season. Brooks, another graduate of ACT, had also worked with Rude Mechanicals executive director Matt Lawler on a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The Mechanicals were already interested in Valparaiso—artistic director Eric Siegel read it when it was first published and thought that the play was a perfect fit for the young group. The company’s past productions—including Charles L. Mee’s Bacchae 2.1, Vaclav Havel’s Largo Desolato, and Caryl Churchill’s A Mouthful of Birds—featured similarly muscular language spoken in a theatrically rarefied world. “Some people say that the language in Valparaiso is not the way people speak,” says Austin Pendleton, who starred in the Steppenwolf production. “Well, that’s right. It’s very magical to me—very poetic, musical, disturbing, evocative.”

There are several reasons why the Rude Mechanicals received the rights to a limited production of Valparaiso when other companies could not. First, it was performed at the Rude Mechanicals’ 2001 “New Play Reading Series” last October. DeLillo was absent, but his friend Gordon Lish was there. “I think he liked it,” says Brooks. “Particularly the way the Rude Mechanicals handled the tricky language.” The company also wrote an impassioned letter to DeLillo’s representatives at the Gersh Agency. But ultimately the writer’s positive experience with Brooks at the Directors Lab paved the way for this first production of Valparaiso in New York City. As with all agreements, though, there are caveats: For example, DeLillo isn’t doing interviews to promote the show.

“I think it’s odd to talk about this play in an interview context,” says Brooks. “Because that’s what the play deals with—the nature and quality of the interview exchange.” In Valparaiso, the seduction of the interview consumes the characters—nothing goes unseen, nothing is left unsaid. “We take every stray moment and follow it to the last dripping shiver,” says one character. DeLillo has always been wary of becoming “part of the all-incorporating treadmill of consumption and disposal.” But what playwright would comment on a play whose very nature tacitly advises him not to?