Theater archives

High and Low


Ten minutes after we were airborne a woman asked me for my autograph.

Americana (1971)

“Fame requires every kind of excess,” Don DeLillo wrote in Great Jones Street (1973), the rock-and-roll novel par excellence. Nearly 30 years later, when a real music-world has-been gets second-active by giving an MTV crew carte blanche around the manse, that last word might be access. In the Rude Mechanicals’ whip-smart staging of DeLillo’s play Valparaiso (through August 18), Michael Majeski (Matthew Lawler), inadvertent world traveler turned instant celebrity, tells the first of many interviewers how to reach him: “I’ll give you some numbers you can call. Home. I have home. I have here. I have my private number for here. I have my secretary when I’m away.”

The syntax snaps satisfyingly, at once fresh and familiar; as in much of DeLillo’s work, talk is performance, not to mention incantation, habit, falsehood. The invasion begins, encouraged and desired by the ones who will be its victims. The word-thirsty world initially learns of Michael because of the foul-ups that turned his simple business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, into a voyage to the end of the earth, routing him to Valparaiso, Florida, and finally Valparaiso, Chile. (“They called me Miguel,” he reports proudly. “I’m learning Spanish on tape.”) Despite the heavenly toponyms, his twin journeys—geographic, then public—spiral into an infernal descent, in which grids of systems dice identity into a scatter of sound bites. (Lest this seem preposterous: Last week it was reported, with requisite snickering, that a couple who bought airline tickets online for a vacation to what they thought was Sydney, Australia, found themselves in a same-named northern town, “one of the worst industrial waste sites in Canada.”)

Published in 1999, Valparaiso was less a coda to his 1997 Cold War omnium gatherum Underworld (which ended with the word “Peace”) than a dry run for The Body Artist (2001), a slim work of calibrated radiances that presented language as erasure, a text for nothing. Thankfully, the talented Mechanicals (under Hal Brooks’s direction) dust off the play’s hidebound glories with a blast of pure oxygen, conveying menace and humor with remarkable assurance. Act II’s assorted content providers thrum with hilarious life, and the sexual confessions (and offstage couplings) crystallize the self-fertilizing nature of the mass-media beast. There is the Brit reporter who takes up fencing poses while commanding, “Give me faster!” and a vérité-shooter (both Andrew Benator) who seduces Michael’s wife, Livia (Elizabeth Sherman), a nursing-home physical therapist and “part-time unpublished poet” whose fame-craving matches her husband’s. There is the soft-touch telejournalist (Kate Nowlin) who rigorously stage-manages Michael’s narrative (“But first take us back”), exposing the play’s recursive heart. There is ABC Australia and a morning radio show originating in either Detroit or Seattle.

And then, for all of Act II, there is nationwide television personality Delfina Treadwell (Carla Harting), a thimble-sized Oprah Ricki Raphael who deconstructs, on air and with playful savagery, not just Majeski’s story but the man himself. Effortlessly moving from come-hither banter to monstrous contempt, Harting makes Delfina convincing as both mother confessor and torture-room interrogator, and the Majeskis bask and unravel in her pertly demonic presence. She’s aided by cynical sidekick Teddy (David Fitzgerald), who delivers his acid contributions while thumbing through magazines—a brilliant offhand gesture of mediatainment at once bored and self-absorbed.

Delfina is always “on,” literally—”I’m live, I’m taped, I’m run, I’m rerun,” she says, a poster girl for the tube’s sham immortality. “Everything is the interview,” says one of Benator’s characters. The production smudges the line between stage and spectator, from the Negativlandish soundscape that precedes the play (“Please turn your cell phone off immediately. There is no one on the other side of the phone”) to Delfina’s calculated leap into an audience member’s lap, consists almost entirely of interviews. On the page, Valparaiso can seem static, its satire appropriately nasty but a touch obvious. Embodied Rudely, with its boundaries blurred, the play now has a discomfiting directness. It works both as entertainment and a critique of its ingredients: the poses, the meaningless hunger, the glib banalities.

During the chat show’s occasional commercial breaks, a chorus of airline attendants intone security queries and emergency instructions like a fearful mantra—a more sinister variant of the way a daughter in White Noise‘s post-nuclear ménage takes dreamy solace in the words Toyota Celica. “Then place the mask,” they say, not completing the sentence. The last words spoken adumbrate even this fragment: Then place—a final dislocation. The mask in question is the plastic visage of televisual fame, or else the suicide shroud that our ostensible hero had in fact cobbled (out of dental floss and an airline-blanket wrapping) during his trip south. Only at the end does the play’s opening image (an enigmatic video projection) scan intelligibly, as surveillance footage of a suffocating man; after two hours of hairpin banter and coruscating vernacular, all becomes wordless once more. With this energetic and frightening production, Valparaiso adds to the surfeit of proof that no writer better isolates than DeLillo our idiot grammars and makeweight pieties, our drivetime phoners and daytime talk, our American magic and dread.