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Theater Review: Valparaiso

By Bence Olveczky
Staff Reporter

Camera crews and journalists hound him for his unlikely story, while talk show hosts excavate even the most trivial details of his "strange and epic odyssey." Michael Majeski, the man in the spotlight, and the protagonist of Don DeLillo's fascinating new play Valparaiso, gives generously. Caught in a whirlwind of attention, he feverishly tries to be "all that he can be," molding to the expectations of his interviewers.

Michael, an average Joe, has become the media's unlikely hero (or anti-hero) after "mistakenly" boarding a flight to Valparaiso, Chile, instead of Valparaiso, Indiana. But while public attention infuses his mundane life with new relevance, it also adds an unhealthy amount of vulnerability to his existence as he gradually loses control and jurisdiction over his own life.

American Repertory Theatre's world premiere of Don DeLillo's insightful new play is a fluid and arresting two-and-a-half hour show that forces us to reflect on the fate of the individual in a media-saturated society.

But while DeLillo, author of such contemporary classics as White Noise and, most recently, Underworld, handles the weighty topic in a laudable manner, he is not a natural playwright, and it is David Wheeler's inspired direction which rescues the play and makes it work. The lack of rhythm, drama, and suspense in the literary material is made up for by a fast-paced and dynamic staging that makes the evening both entertaining and unnerving.

The play follows Mike's encounters with the media. Seemingly enjoying his meteoric rise to "stardom," Mike is eager to please all members of the press corps, telling each of them what they want to hear. With the media putting its stamp of approval on his lies and distortions, Mike starts believing them as he enthusiastically, if unwittingly, takes on the role the press has created for him.

Will Patton, fresh from the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon, does a remarkable job in conveying a seemingly normal businessman's harrowing path from sanity to stardom. With his blue-eyed innocence and naiveté, Patton's Mike gains our sympathy as we follow his tortuous journey across the dangerous minefields of media-land towards fame and ultimate failure.

His wife, Livia, part fitness junkie, part neurotic housewife, part Jerry Springer material, is riding on a high as the press lets her elaborate on such vital matters as dental hygiene, exercycle addiction, and the inevitability of making too many sandwiches. ART regular Caroline Hall plays Livia as an air-headed blonde who displays both her ignorance and sexy attributes in a manner worthy of the Shopping Channel.

The play culminates in an hour-long talk show, in which the famous host Delfina sets out to reveal the "real" Majeski couple. Delfina, played in true Oprah-style by an inspired Randy Danson, wants to strip away the superficial layers of Mike's story to discover the reality hidden in his rehearsed answers. But her quest turns sour as she finds only frustration and despair behind his plastic-fantastic façade. As his life is deconstructed on live television, Mike's vulnerability is revealed. Faced with the sorry truth, Delfina's unlikely celebrity guest ends the day-time TV show in an excessively melodramatic fashion.

While the ending's obvious symbolism (media consumes innocent naive citizen) is both overstated and uncalled for, it is the only part of the play where DeLillo is pointing a finger of blame. Valparaiso succeeds so well exactly because DeLillo refrains from making judgment calls. Rather, he puts a mirror in front of us and feels the pulse of our contemporary "post-human" society without moralizing. DeLillo deliberately fails to give us a diagnosis, much less a remedy for Mike's estrangement and despair, but he seems to suggest that our incessant need for a "surrogate" reality is a result of a safety mechanism that is designed to protect us from ourselves. When this mechanism fails and the bubble of self-deception bursts, it can be fatal.

In DeLillo's bleak, but uncomfortably convincing, end-of-the-millennium view, there is not much hope left, and ART's production is carefully designed to augment the doomsday feel of the play.

The stage, with its eerie black and white panels serving as backdrop for various icons of consumerism, creates a strangely impersonal atmosphere. Video projections, showing a man with a plastic bag on his head slowly suffocating, don't exactly lift our spirits either. But that's not the point.

While most good theater productions succeed by showing us the depths and splendor of the human soul, DeLillo and the ART has managed something quite frightening. They have given us a remarkable piece of theater based solely on the superficiality of our species. And that I applaud with cold and sweaty hands.