Valparaiso @ Old Red Lion , London

cast list
Stephen Chance
Cristina Gavin
Camilla Simson
Thomas Grube

directed by
Jack McNamara
“Don’t fight the camera.”

Businessman Michael Majeski has made a mistake, a silly error. Intending to travel to Valparaiso, Indiana he instead boarded a flight to Valparaiso Florida and somehow ended up in Valparaiso, Chile. His curious misadventure turns him into a celebrity, journalists clamour to retell his tale; his life is gashed open for the media to feed upon.

So far this sounds like basic media-age satire, the kind of which is hardly original. But Valparaiso has the distinction of being written by the heavyweight American novelist Don DeLillo, his second play, here receiving its UK premiere.

DeLillo is not always the easiest of writers to get to grips with. I’d wager the number of people who quietly put aside the weighty Underworld after the opening baseball game scene is probably higher than the number of people who managed to read the thing all the way through. Valparaiso is predictably verbose, a novelist’s idea of a play. The characters converse in an overtly un-naturalistic manner: using poetic phraseology and occasionally resorting to rhyme (and alliteration for that matter). And on top of that there’s some heavy-handed Classical allusions in the form of a Greek chorus of airline stewards.

The first half sees Majeski and his unblinking wife Livia repeat their story for the various sections of the press, the details picked over and repeated into meaninglessness. The second half sees the couple stranded on the sofa of demonic chat show host Delfina Treadwell, where the darker reasons behind Majeski’s misguided trip are finally revealed.

The play has moments of enjoyably black humour but its far too broad to work as satire and by targeting glossy talk shows it feels already rather dated. Still, Stephen Chance is completely compelling as the unfortunate Majeski, Camilla Simson is suitably cold and commanding as Treadwell (despite having to wear a truly, truly hideous maroon satin dress) and Thomas Grube exudes oily unpleasantness as her devilish sidekick.

The production makes excellent use of the intimate space of the Old Red Lion. The set, black leather sofas against a crisp white background, is simple but quite striking, a touch of soft orange light all it takes to turn the anonymous Majeski living room into an equally anonymous television studio.

Director Jack McNamara’s unsettling use of video and a soundtrack of static and electronic whines of feedback (composed by Jack C Arnold) demonstrate a definite talent. A recent graduate, McNamara’s ideas for the production so impressed DeLillo that the novelist got in touch personally. He’s one to watch out for and he clearly believes in his material, but it’s just a shame in this instance that he affords the play a reverence it doesn’t quite deserve.

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