Reviews: Valparaiso

The Globe & Mail

Unsettling Journey From Hero to Zero

Valerie Gregory
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Written by Don DeLillo
Directed by Michael Schaldemose
Starring Andy Thompson, Diana Swayze, Enuka Okuma and Ray Galletti
At Presentation House in North Vancouver

The longest trip most of us ever take is a private one to the dark recesses of our minds. But what if our interior journey took a public form and became grist for the mass-media mill?

In the Canadian premiere of Don DeLillo's unsettling new play Valparaiso, a nondescript business traveller has a misadventure that catapults him to a cult-like figure pursued by every stripe of media. Michael Majeski's progress from hero to zero is a sharply written, provocative and blackly funny take on how modern media dictates mass culture and diffuses personal identity.

As Marshall McLuhan observed, the medium is the message, and New York author DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld, The Body Artist), perhaps the sagest observer of the American psyche, understands that dictum only too well.

DeLillo's everyman character replaces a colleague on a last-minute business flight to Valparaiso, Ill., and somehow ends up in Valparaiso, Chile. His folly becomes international news and as the play begins, Majeski and wife Livia have already done 67 interviews and are fielding dozens more. Majeski is formal in a business suit, with a distant stare in his eyes that his precise responses can't conceal. Each journalist he encounters has his or her own style and is obnoxious in a singular way, but all seek to frame his answers in their own context, trivializing his experience and focusing on meaningless details.

"Everything is on the record. Everything is the interview," announces a writer who reveals that her own life, like the stories she writes, is a desperate overstatement. And the more Majeski is interviewed, the more he seeks to please, shaping his replies to satisfy what the journalists want to hear. Eventually, the truth about what happened to him is subverted.

Andy Thompson gives a bravura performance as a man who has misplaced not only his body, but his soul. So superbly subtle is his acting that the audience sees his persona crumble molecule by molecule. By the time he and Livia, played with feral precision by Diana Swayze, appear on a daytime talk show hosted by a hipper, infinitely meaner and sexier version of Oprah Winfrey, they are as vulnerable as cattle at a slaughterhouse.

Millions of fans seek to transcend their lives as Delphina, played with sleek, scary conviction by Enuka Okuma, promises them a glimpse of a "hyperlife of laughter and tears and tenderness and rocking-socking sensation." What she doesn't say is that someone has to be eaten alive in the blood sport of daytime TV for that to happen.

DeLillo's prose masterfully dissects the blue glow of these intimate strangers. Delphina's silky tones drip contempt for her victims and her audience, and possibly even for herself. She does a delicate dance of feigned empathy and genuine hostility as she homes in for the kill, aided by her slippery sidekick Teddy, a gleeful Ray Galletti.

Delphina skillfully coaxes confessions out of Livia, encouraging her to turn on her husband, who withers under her betrayal. Overwhelmed by the vast power of the media and with his life a public laughingstock, Majeski is a pitiful but not uncommon sight to people who watch TV regularly.

Director Michael Schaldemose faithfully interprets DeLillo's play and keeps the pace brisk -- although the second act could use some judicious trimming -- and the tone ironic. Produced by the Virtual Stage Co-op with the support of the Way Off Broadway theatre company, Valparaiso uses video and digital technology with intermittent success.

But the cast is tight and adept at slinging DeLillo's acerbic words. Trevor White shines in dual roles as an unethical documentary filmmaker and aggressive reporter, and Daune Campbell oozes eroticism as a neurotic writer.

Ultimately, Valparaiso makes one thing clear: Playgoers, like TV viewers, are more than willing to watch another human being's destruction with horrified fascination.