Just as Sideshow Bob transformed Krusty’s gross-out kids’ show into the Cavalcade of Whimsy (“And now, children, in the words of Mr. Cole Porter….”), Don DeLillo remakes the 24-hour news cycle in his own image, supplying it in Valparaiso with the intellectual agenda of the contemporary novelist.
Here the mass media are driven not by a stew of preformed opinion, moral outrage, and celebrity fetishism but rather a highly developed and frequently articulated sense of existential panic. That’s hardly an intuitive leap for the rest of us to make, trapped as we are in a media culture where people who use words like “celebutante” and “actorvist” are allowed to walk the streets unaccosted. But the folks at Forum make that leap nimbly enough and are able to bring the rest of us along.
Valparaiso is the story of a story. It’s one we see repeatedly told by Michael Majeski (Jason Lott), a businessman who sets off for Valparaiso, Ind., and ends up in Valparaiso, Chile, instead. This logistical hiccup makes him fodder for an endless series of human-interest pieces by the international media. As he is interviewed repeatedly he grows more practiced at telling his tale. Gradually, he becomes indistinguishable from his story. Where does he begin, and where does his story end? What is he leaving out, and how much of his story is true? What, for that matter, is Truth?
If you’ve read any DeLillo, you’ll recognize the media critique he’s making here. There’s the easy, satirical stuff, as when Majeski’s interviewers espouse a yawning, zombielike hunger for his story. “We need to know,” they say, repeatedly. “We want to know.” “Tell us everything.”
More fun is DeLillo’s take on what would happen if the mass media were to routinely trade in the kind of sustained philosophical discourse that, in our world, crops up only in literary fiction, experimental theater, and symposiums. Valparaiso’s characters are comically articulate and self-aware, and they express their every thought in heightened language. Sometimes hauntingly beautiful, sometimes merely effete, it’s the kind of writerly, “look-at-me” dialogue you find in a DeLillo novel or a Donald Barthelme story. On the page, you happily linger over it. Onstage, it’s considerably riskier.
No one really talks like DeLillo’s characters, and under Michael Dove’s firm-handed direction, the actors embrace the rigorous dialogue unselfconsciously. The resulting straight-backed formality in every character’s bearing enlarges nicely on DeLillo’s themes: Majeski has practiced his story so often it has hardened into a shell around him (as does Lott’s demeanor, and watching this subtle change is one of this production’s joys). Those with whom he interacts have their own personas and their own histories, which are just as practiced and polished.
Through short interviews, DeLillo parcels out information bit by bit in the first act, but the structure grows repetitive. After the intermission, however, the second act starts with a high-energy, high-concept bang from Brent Lowder, who, as Teddy, the sidekick to perky and metaphysically inquisitive talk show host Delfina (Charlotte Akin), warms up the audience with a monologue that contains the play’s tightest, funniest writing. Akin’s Delfina is a memorably comic and existentially terrifying creation, equal parts Oprah and Cthulhu. Her feral performance sustains our attention even when the second act starts to sag under the weight of its requisite reveals.
DeLillo’s ideas remain slightly bigger than his characters, which blunts the play’s emotional impact, but Valparaiso is intellectually engaging throughout. You’ll feel the satisfying neatness of its structure, the way it manages to get all its symbolic ducks in a row just in time for the curtain. When the lights come up and you find yourself roughly deposited back into our familiar media landscape, where self-involvement passes for self-awareness, you’ll feel a pang of loss. Forum’s smart production offers an intriguing glimpse of a culture that confronts the abyss by collectively staring into it. That’s a feat our mass media can’t match, with the possible exception of the creeping existential horror that attends an Engaged & Underage marathon.