Media Mugging

Sudden fame plays out badly in Valparaiso

Let's say you go to the airport and you know where you're going. Indeed, you can name your destination and you are, in fact, flown "there." That doesn't mean you're in the right place. In fact, you may be tragically far away from where you need to be.

Such is the conundrum that faces the main character in Valparaiso, a lushly written play by the acclaimed novelist Don DeLillo now at Convergence-Continuum. In novels such as White Noise and Underworld, DeLillo often explores the profound disconnection of an individual in our impersonal, media-saturated culture.

This play, written in 1999, attacks that idea directly, sometimes with piercing wit on a stage bristling with TV cameras, monitors, and microphones. But DeLillo's densely crafted language, so luxurious in a narrative form, doesn't always fit easily into characters' mouths. And because of some unfortunate acting in key roles, the production never entirely gets off the ground.

The action starts with — and continues to swirl around — a series of interviews conducted by various members of the media and one documentary filmmaker. They are all on the trail of Michael Majeski, a nondescript businessman who one day headed off on a trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, but ended up in Valparaiso, Chile, by way of Valparaiso, Florida.

Michael at first seems a hesitant subject for these interviews, not certain why his mistaken-destination story has become such a fascination. But soon he begins to blossom under the white heat of his exposure on TV and radio, obligingly tailoring his answers to meet the different requirements of his eager interrogators.

The first act is filled with these interviews, which gradually reveal little misunderstandings and accidents that led to Michael's landing in Chile. Michael appears to grow more confident and assured, feeding on the situation: "Spearheads and smoking swords touch me, and I flame."

But there's a bone-deep insecurity in Michael he can't shake; he's not even certain his amorous wife Livia knows who he is when they make love. And as Michael becomes more famous, Livia starts to demand her own piece of fame. This leads to a second-act confrontation with an Oprah-like talk show diva, Delfina, whose interview of the couple leads to a tragic conclusion.

The playwright is particularly adept at portraying the rapacious nature of the media, which is never satisfied until it can strip every particle of meat off the bones of any story. "Just keep talking," they say, and "The tape is running." So Michael keeps talking, exposing more of himself and mistaking the warmth of media adoration for something more.

But DeLillo often gets swept away in the flurry of his elaborate metaphors and frequently leaves his actors a tangle of ungainly verbiage to manage.

The Convergence-Continuum players are only fitfully successful at mastering this daunting script. In the linchpin role of Michael, Clint Elston has an appropriate Everyman look, but he is not equal to the acting tasks presented. The problems start with a softness on lines that causes little memory pauses and blips throughout his performance.Also, rather than fashioning a character, Elston just displays characteristics — stunned confusion, assured bravado — that never add up to a convincing human being. He seems to believe that by changing volume, he is somehow conveying character traits.

With little to play off, Amy Bistok-Bunce as the libidinous Livia ends up going very broad with her characterization, which at moments is funny but eventually becomes tired.

After intermission, a couple more on-stage TV monitors show up (all the better for close-ups) and things brighten briefly when Lucy Bredeson-Smith enters as Delfina, a woman who wonders if she is "clinically self-absorbed." She and her sniveling factotum Teddy (an also line-challenged Curt Arnold) keep the pressure on Michael as Delfina coos: "Don't fight the camera, melt into it."

Trouble is, we've seen many parodies of these televised gab fests. Plus, the media world has exploded since this play was written, burying the old abuses of talk shows under the avalanche of reality programming and social media.

Director Clyde Simon, serving as his own set designer, does himself no favors with a set that feels like a bland, barren, and unappealing afterthought. And his usual sure-handed guidance of actors here seems frayed, as important beats are repeatedly lost in the welter of words.

Still, this Valparaiso offers an amusing Greek chorus of flight attendants who probably deserve their own show. There's that, along with important ideas and lovely writing, if one is willing to sift through a number of staging problems to find them.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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