By Don DeLillo
Directed by Michael Dove
Produced by Forum Theatre & Dance
Reviewed by Janice Cane
During the intermission of Valparaiso at the H Street Playhouse a few nights ago, my companion turned to me and asked, “So, what do you think?” My response: “I like it, but it’s a little strange.” If I had only known what was in store for me! Act One was very good with a little bit of weird mixed in, but Act Two was very weird with a woefully small bit of good mixed in.
In the play, the protagonist, Michael Majeski, was supposed to fly to Chicago on his way to a business meeting in Valparaiso, Indiana. Instead, he boarded a flight to Miami, Florida, where he was to take a small connecting flight to Valparaiso, Florida. But another mix-up sent him to Santiago, Chile, where he took a helicopter to Valparaiso, Chile. This “long journey” becomes a much longer, more existential journey for Michael as he becomes increasingly famous for his mistake.
The traveling fiasco is a fantastic premise for a show, and the emotional ramifications of that one day in Michael’s life constitute a solid first act that asks intriguing questions. But by the end of the bizarre, overdrawn Act Two, I wished I was in Valparaiso-Indiana, Florida, or Chile-just to escape the madness.
Valparaiso is about expression of self. Not self-expression, because the self has no place in this modern world of cameras and microphones. According to playwright Don DeLillo, these technological devices are our forms of self-expression. During one of the 140 interviews Michael gives in four-and-a-half days and three-and-a-half cities, the interviewer insists their conversation began before she even entered the room, before Michael boarded the wrong plane, but rather at his very conception. A documentary filmmaker doesn’t care about the event that made Michael famous, but rather about everything he has done since that fateful day. This will be “a film that consumes itself while the audience watches.” To the filmmaker, the long journey that matters is the one that began after Valparaiso.
Michael quits his job to become, essentially, a full-time subject. His job, his life, becomes entirely about other people’s view of him-expression of self. He insists his life has become more pure and clear. The skeptic might assume Michael is simply sleep-deprived, for he is clearly losing it. But DeLillo has imagined a man capable of becoming so engrossed in a description of himself that it no longer matters whether or not the description is positive. When asked if he is a happy man, Michael responds, “I am a complete man.”
I was so captivated during Act One because this is a fantastic production. The actors throw themselves into their roles (most play multiple parts), no matter how wacky they are. Michael is desperate and funny at the same time, and Jason Lott does a tremendous job completing his character’s wild arc. Lott captured my attention right away and managed to hold it even when I lost patience with the plot.
Rose McConnell and Helen Pafumi are particularly insightful as interviewers and then very comical as burlesque flight attendants. And then there’s Brent Lowder, the somewhat creepy but very funny sidekick in Act Two’s talk show that reminded me of a “Shrek” character, although I can’t put my finger on why.
The talented cast on stage is complemented by a talented group of designers off stage. Multimedia designer Grady Weatherford’s team handled the play’s numerous technical cues flawlessly, from the sound of airplanes overhead to the live video feed of Michael’s interviews. Mark W.C. Wright has sparsely decorated H Street Playhouse’s sizeable black box theater with a white couch and chair, coffee table, and exercise bike that is oddly old-fashioned in such a modern play, perhaps to add a touch of subtle irony.
So I liked Act One. Director Michael Dove clearly did a top-notch job guiding his cast and crew through the multiple plains-and planes-of Michael Majeski’s life. So what’s the problem? Act Two. Several months have passed since the first act, and Michael is still satisfying relentless requests for interviews. This time, he and his now-pregnant wife (Fiona Blackshaw, with a perfectly crazed look in her eyes) are appearing on the Delfina Show.
Delfina (the energetic Charlotte Akin) is a nut with an obsessive need to know everything about her guests-more than they know about themselves. She thinks her show is so important because “off-camera lives are unverifiable,” and that is the main comment DeLillo is making about our reality-television society. What is real and what is not?
The problem with this is that Delfina-the very character who brings us to this realization-is so terribly unrealistic. She does raise some interesting existential questions (in airports, anonymous people hurry toward their lives, but Michael was going the other way … why?), but by now the questions have been asked by every other interviewer.
I grew weary of this line of questioning and was ready to end the interview well before the lights went down. The only saving grace was the uproarious “commercials”-a clever plot device to make the audience laugh after some pretty intense and unsettling moments. The ads are even weirder than Delfina, but they are funnier, too.
In the end, Forum’s Valparaiso is a terrific production of a mediocre play. If you have a high threshold for the slightly absurd, give it a shot-it raises some interesting questions and showcases nuanced performances by very committed actors. But if you have a lower tolerance for ridiculous, even superfluous, theatrics on stage, you may want to stay home instead of venturing to Valparaiso.
(Running time: approximately two hours) Valparaiso is playing through July 28 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street N.E., Washington, DC 20002. Performances are Thursdays at 8 p.m. ($15), Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($18), and Sundays at 2 p.m. ($15). Student and senior discounts are available. There are post-show discussions on July 7, 14, and 21. Buy tickets online.