Valparaiso Is Worth the Wait
A freeze-dried first half gives way to a climax that floods the senses
By Don DeLillo
Directed by Michael Schaldemose
A Virtual Stage Co-op production
At Presentation House until March 3
By Colin Thomas
After a fizzling first act, playwright Don DeLillo's Valparaiso explodes into philosophical fireworks.
DeLillo, who is best known for his heady novels Underworld and White Noise, builds Valparaiso on a quirky premise: a man named Michael Majeski heads off on a business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, but ends up in Valparaiso, Chile. Upon his return to the United States, his mistake turns him into a minicelebrity, a status that threatens his sanity.
DeLillo uses Michael's accidental adventure-including the surreal experience of mechanized flight and the computerized authority of airline ticketing systems-as a central metaphor. And the alienation of that experience deepens as the technology and tastes of the mass media interpret iit. Instructed to speak into a tape recorder as he describes his folly, Michael stammers: "I felt remote. I felt a tremendous separation." Unfortunately, this idea gets repetitive: "Look at the camera, not at me," a TV host tells him. Besides, the points that DeLillo makes in Act 1 are all pretty obvious: we know that supposed news stories include massive amounts of fictionalization; and it comes as no surprise that TV has an endless appetite for petty personal detail-the fact that Michael's wife once jerked him off in the back of a taxi, for instance. And it's hard to find a reason to care; Act 1 contains virtually no psychological development, and its numerous, scattered scenes feel more like thematic illustrations than elements of a compelling story.
The first half feels so freeze-dried that I was amazed when the play sprang to life in Act 2. The second half works because DeLillo focuses his thematic development through a single, compelling, and theatrical crisis: Michael breaks down during his appearance on a talk show hosted by Delphina, who is a kind of super-Oprah.
Delphina's image emerges as a kind of fetish, a manufactured object endowed with power through the worshipful attention of her fans. And Delphina's show clearly reveals the appetite that television promises to satisfy: our hunger for authenticity in the present moment. With its endless manipulations-which can be presented with equal glibness as news or as the latest episode of Survivor-television has informed our cultural understanding of the subjectivity of history and of previously unchallenged notions of truth. There's nowhere to look for authentic experience other than in the fleeting sensations of the now. And no medium promises more or richer variations on the present tense than TV does-especially in its supposedly unscripted emotional "surprises". That's why, as Delphina alternately bullies Michael and empathizes with him about the despair that lay beneath a desperate act he claims to have committed on the flight to Chile, we just can't wait for him to snap.
Obviously, none of these ideas would have much resonance if they weren't well-realized theatrically. Andy Thompson's performance as Michael is the rock upon which this production is built. He describes a gorgeously detailed arc for Michael-from the exquisite deadpan bafflement of his first interview, through his increasingly savvy manipulation of his own image, to the touching emotional credibility of his eventual collapse. Enuka Okuma's take on Delphina is complex, intelligent, and lively. And Ray Galletti manages to be true to Teddy, Delphina's unctuous sidekick, at the same time that he mercilessly sends him up.
You have to wait for the stimulation in Valparaiso, but when it comes, it floods your synapses.