Photo by Elizabeth O'Hara YagerA businessman is supposed to take a flight to Valparaiso, Ohio, but gets on a plane bound for Valparaiso, Florida, instead. By another miscalculation, he ends up flying to Valparaiso, Chile, near the bottom of the world: a curious series of mishaps held together by the coincidence of a name. The news media get wind of it: hey, look, here's a funny little human-interest story that might bookend a broadcast and massage the audience right into the commercial. We can exploit the bejesus out of this.
But the businessman craves the exploitation like some addled trailer-park teen impregnated by her mother's boyfriend on Sally Jesse Raphael. Desperate to fill his life with enough white noise to drown out a family tragedy that has left him limp with guilt and emptiness, he bows before each journalist who visits his home, cravenly eager to narratize his life according to the demands of each medium. "Speak faster," one says, and he does; "Look into camera two," says another, and he can do that, too. By the end, he finds himself on America's preeminent daytime talk show, an Oprah clone, and he's spilling out his deepest secrets with the talk-show host egging him on—"I want your soul in a silver thimble. . . . I want your naked shit-most self"—until an apotheosis comes that feels every bit as inevitable as the proverbial gun glimpsed in the first act that goes off in the last.
This Warholian parable of a man collapsing into his 15 minutes of fame is written by that great novelist (White Noise, Underworld) and chronicler of postmodern suffering, Don DeLillo, and staged by the energetic folks at downtown San Diego's Sledgehammer Theater, who engage banks of TVs above the audience, video cameras projecting the action onstage against the theater's back wall, deafening sound effects, a Greek chorus of bruised, partially nude flight attendants who look like they just survived a crash landing—all the Zoo TV Tour stuff imaginable to get across the play's theme, that when your sense of identity has been emptied out by dread, dislocation and tragedy, the mass media is always there to fill you back up again with its slippery seductions. Director Matthew Wilder revs the play at full throttle from the first minute and never lets up. The actors scream, leer, paw and menace one another; the music and video sound are cranked to 11. There's all manner of post-Brechtian stylization. This is one muscular, intense production.
Unnecessarily muscular and intense, it turns out. DeLillo's dialogue distills the language of mass media to a pitiless, sublime ironic poetry: it doesn't require the hard sell Wilder gives it. "Calm down, everybody," you want to say, "trust the words to do more of the work." Slow the thick drip of sarcasm and menace seeping from the media characters (especially Shonda R. Dawson, who can't pull off the necessary gravitas to convince us she's a TV goddess); ratchet down the decibel level (especially the nearly heroic Lisel M. Gorell, who's required to scream five times in a row, "Nobody's eating my sandwiches!" at the end of Act I); and contemplate how well underplaying a scene—the way the businessman (Matt Kautz) and an interviewer (Nicole Monica) do in their scene together, or the way Walter Murray plays the talk-show sidekick—brings out the play's subterranean pathos. Valparaiso's power lies in the vulnerable silence beneath its noise, and it'd be nice if Wilder trusted us to hear it more than he does.
Valparaiso at Sledgehammer Theater, 1620 Sixth Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through July 7. $15-$20.