If nothing else, Free Association Theater Ensemble's production of Don DeLillo's Valparaiso at Common Ground deserves points for creative staging. The staging area is set up like rows of airplane seats, with the playbill and tickets given out as boarding passes and free peanuts distributed at intermission. As clever as the production is, though, it still has to contend with a surreal, intellectual script that doesn't necessarily make for a coherent storyline.
Novelist DeLillo's tale—which he wrote as an original play—involves Michael Majeski (John Paul Middlesworth), an ordinary middle-class schlub who becomes a media sensation when he gets turned around on a business flight to Valparaiso, Ind., and winds up in Valparaiso, Fla., and then Valparaiso, Chile. Hundreds upon hundreds of interviews with Michael and his fame-crazed wife, Livia (Julie-Kate Cooper), follow, examining every aspect of his unexamined life until a high-profile piece with international talk show host Delfina (Lisa Levin) threatens to bring Michael's world crashing down.
What makes Valparaiso's material problematic is that DeLillo's short, abstract dialogue works brilliantly on the page but less so when uttered aloud. The trenchant points about the media's invasiveness and our desire to break free from mediocrity are clear, but at times the actual story isn't. The cubistic quality of the storyline, reliant upon repetitive interview questions and oblique answers, obscures some of the genuinely interesting points that DeLillo is trying to make, and while the ensemble makes some daring choices in the presentation of the material, the script's odd combination of absurd satire and genuine existential pathos means they're swimming upstream.
One of the points of the play seems to be that Michael blossoms, then wilts as the result of the media attention, but the relentless pacing doesn't give the audience much of a chance to see him become more confident and outgoing. Instead, the emphasis is on Michael's flat, blank qualities in the face of the interviews. The character becomes more confident toward the end of the first act, but for the second act to work there needs to be a sense that Michael has mastered the art of media manipulation, or at least thinks he has. That doesn't quite come off, either in the text or in the production.
And some of the narrative touches don't work; Cooper as Livia deserves credit for doing her role entirely on an exercise bike (she must lose five pounds a night doing this for two hours straight), but the video footage used at certain points in the play just bog it down. To its credit, the airplane production forces the audience to treat this world as reality, which ensures a direct involvement with the material, even when it's emotionally distant. This can also backfire, though; with the audience kept occupied clamoring for peanuts and soda from the "flight attendants" during intermission, I found it hard to have an opportunity for a bathroom break.
FATE's production of this difficult script is a valiant one that possesses a commendable vibrancy and interactivity that helps draw the audience into a challenging story. Plus, hey, free peanuts. How many plays offer that?