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Hollowed Out 

A solid production with fancy trimmings is undermined by a glib script

Wednesday, Apr 28 2004
Since his first novel, Americana, Don DeLillo has written about the wide-open spaces of American identity -- its vacancies, its possibilities, its bizarre warping by TV and other cultural kitsch. A quotation that director Ben Yalom has added to this production of DeLillo's play Valparaiso comes right out with the dark thesis the author has explored in most of his fiction: "We're all a heartbeat away from becoming elevator music." It's a creepy idea; the skin is meant to crawl.

Valparaiso follows an ordinary guy named Michael Majeski on his round of press interviews after a simple business trip to Valparaiso, Ind., goes horribly wrong. His plane for Indiana turns out to be a plane for Valparaiso, Fla.; hoping to correct his mistake in Miami and fly back to the Midwest, he winds up on an international flight for Valparaiso, Chile. The story turns into a news-of-the-weird novelty item on most American networks, and the play shows the glare of Majeski's Warholian 15 minutes.

The first act is cryptic and a little untethered; Majeski's interviews with overaggressive journalists happen either in a bland sound studio or nowhere at all. Before the whole story comes into focus you'd be excused for mistaking Majeski for a crime suspect being grilled by pissed-off detectives. At one point he wonders if he should talk on-record. "Everything is on the record," snaps his inquisitor. "Everything is the interview."

Act 2 is more grounded in time and place: Majeski and his pregnant wife, Livia, make a disastrous appearance on the Delfina Treadwell Show. Introduced as "the shining soul of daytime America," Delfina is a vision of death in black-dyed hair, pallid makeup, and dark blue leatherette. She wears an extra layer of makeup in a masklike oval on her face (and so do her guests); but in spite of the horrid glitz, Majeski decides to reveal himself. He confesses to feeling suicidal on the plane, and suggests that his coincidence of flights from the American heartland to Chile may have been a bid for escape. Only now he's on daytime TV, where producers and cameramen with a practiced lack of taste reduce his life to soapy melodrama. Real cameramen onstage focus on Majeski's face, or his wife's pregnant belly, to reproduce that claustrophobic Dr. Phil mood on live closed-circuit television.

The effect is eerie; your skin will crawl. Foolsfury has mounted a solid production with fancy trimmings, like the occasional awful song or commercials by Delfina's airline sponsor done as witty, choreographed movement pieces. Rod Hipskind plays a likable Majeski -- wiry, frantic, bearded, wearing a gray rumpled suit -- and Csilla Horvath is crisp and compulsive as the hyperactive Livia. ("I have a demonic side that only Michael knows," she explains to an interviewer, meaning she does "demon repetitions" on her Exercycle while smoking herbal cigarettes.) Jessica Jelliffe is also an appropriately sinister Queen of Darkness as Delfina Treadwell. Other actors, like Alexander Lewis and Lindsay Anderson, play various interviewers with a stilted, forced intensity that makes the first act a bit tedious.

The main problem with Valparaiso, though, has to do with DeLillo's script, or perhaps his worldview. DeLillo (and, I think, Yalom) would like the play to be something more than witty satire -- maybe a serious intellectual criticism of postmodern America. As much as I hate TV, something in me resists DeLillo's gloominess about American "society" turning into packaged toothpaste. A more sympathetic critic has written, "DeLillo has masterfully taken the arcane theories of Foucault's 'technologies of self' and made them lucid in the klieg light of daytime television." To me that's exactly the problem. (Why does a French intellectual always lurk behind faux-complex literature?) DeLillo's characters are too abstract to work as deep social criticism. They're constructed, empty. Majeski's a standard business traveler having a simple midlife crisis; Livia is his standard image-conscious wife. We know what DeLillo means, but we also know that real people are more involved and less hopeless. It's easy for a writer to declare the hollowness of media-saturated selfhood when he writes such hollow characters.

DeLillo has made his "elevator music" remark in more than one interview about the craft of writing. "No one is freer than the American writer and for the same reason he is one step away from ending as elevator music," he told one Danish journalist. "The pop culture absorbs everything and how do you keep on having an undermining strength? William Burroughs did it for 40 years, but today everything becomes a T-shirt, a coffee mug, a shopping bag."

DeLillo is right to worry about that, but it's a personal problem, not a social one; it's a puzzle for anyone on the verge of massive televised fame. Which may be why Valparaiso -- and so much of DeLillo's fiction -- feels theoretical. The struggles of a writer with his own narcissism don't always translate to society at large; in fact most people find the black arts of Delfina Treadwell rather easy to avoid.


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