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Meet John and Jane Doe 

The year of living famously

Thursday, Apr 10 2003
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Photo by Desi Doyen

Michael Majeski has experienced the kind of interrupted journey that is possible only in the age of supersonic flight and evaporating national borders. It seems that on a business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, Michael (Thomas Craig Elliott) was re-routed from Chicago to Miami; as if this weren't enough, the next, amended leg of his journey, to Valparaiso, Florida, resulted in his enplaning to South America and taking a helicopter ride to Valparaiso, Chile.

But in Don DeLillo's Valparaiso, now at Sacred Fools Theater, that's only the start: Michael becomes an instant media celebrity who eventually overstays his 15-minute welcome — endlessly repeating and refining his answers to the same incessant questions about what led to his fluke odyssey, as though some transcendent, liberating truth will emerge from these banal catechisms. The scary part is that our wayward traveler manfully accepts the grueling schedule of interviews that eventually dominate his existence and that of his wife, Livia (Dee Nelson) — as though he's secretly known that his whole life has been a preparation for a media carnival.

His occasional interrogators (John Wuchte and Julie A. Lockhart) are an indifferent crew who clearly have no genuine interest in Michael's travels, even as they push microphones in front of him. Meanwhile, Michael effortlessly appropriates their cold professionalism and even begins to incorporate their expressions into his answers. When Michael's "fame" places him and Livia together on a high-profile, Oprah-type talk show, he reaches the apogee of his Icarian celebrity arc and now faces disaster.

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At first glance, Valparaiso appears to be a knowing, if somewhat smug, satire on tabloid culture and our insatiable blood lust for revelation and moral implosion. DeLillo shows us a nation obsessed with asking personal questions for the mere sake of asking because, as one character says, "Everything is accessible." Soon, however, his play moves into the great, lonely heart of America, into the dream life of people who have always suspected they were special but needed media validation to prove it to the world. Act 2 is a modern Grand Inquisitor scene, set on a TV show hosted by a woman named Delfina Treadwell (Julie Alexander). The hypernarcissistic Delfina is a celebrity interviewer and a kind of Delphic oracle who, instead of dispensing enigmatic replies to truth seekers, asks nebulous questions of her victim-subjects.

This harrowing L.A.-premiere production, deftly mounted by director David LM Mcintyre, always has its finger on the pulse of DeLillo's bleak comedy. Mcintyre's eye for physical nuance reveals itself in nearly every moment, as when he has a bored interviewer slyly push away sandwiches Livia has brought into a room, even while inching his microphone toward her. From leads Elliott and Nelson to the show's Chorus (a ghostly trio of flight attendants played by Wuchte, Lockhart and Liesel Kopp), the ensemble leaves behind a first-rate work of acting; Alexander almost walks away with the show as the self-absorbed imp Delfina — a role perfectly complemented by Robert Tobin as her cynical sidekick, Teddy, who idly flips through Vanity Fair while Delfina grills Michael about his elliptical journey to Chile.

"I don't want your candor," she tells Michael. "I want your soul in a silver thimble." These words should be engraved on every TV set.

While Valparaiso looks at what happens when an Everyman becomes famous, Kelly Stuart's Mayhem (at Evidence Room) is about a drab character's upsetting brush with a well-known writer.

As a defining moment, the 2000 Democratic Convention was pretty low-definition — an authoritarian control freak's dream in which the anger of young protesters fizzled out against the riot shields of the LAPD. In Mayhem the event appropriately floats in the background — like cobwebs in the Echo Park home of the play's housewife protagonist. Susan (Megan Mullally) lives with her recovered-junkie husband, David (Nick Offerman), as both a baby and the convention occasionally rage offstage. A more invasive presence is Susan's pal Claire (Cheryl White), a cause-du-jour kibitzer who is always dropping in to remind Susan of her unrealized potential and waning social consciousness.

The play begins with Claire trying to hustle Susan away from her housework and off to a merry little conference on "art and genocide." The plan also seems, somewhat covertly, a way to give Susan a break from David, whose obsessive AA attendance is driving her crazy. The morose husband doesn't want Susan to go to the conference, paranoiacally predicting that it will be followed by drinks and a rapturous introduction to some Casanova journalist. She goes anyway, and David's prophecy comes true — Susan meets and reluctantly falls for a famous war scribe named Wesley (Jason Adams), who's stopping in L.A. en route to cover his next train wreck, Afghanistan.

"We who do this," says Wesley of his profession, "have the smell of death in our nostrils." We who hear this, of course, get a whiff of something more bovine, though Susan is sufficiently entranced to risk her marriage for this smooth talker. Before long, Wesley has bestowed a camera and the duty of recording history on Susan, whose only artistic endeavor has been publishing a kids' pop-up book.

For all its meticulous attention to the details of middle-aged, post-bohemian life east of Alvarado, not a lot happens in Mayhem. There's some shtick involving Claire's hopeless infatuation for Wesley and a bit of mystery about David's trips to MacArthur Park, but little is really articulated here — either about the moral decisions someone in Susan's place must make or about the political smog generated by the convention unfolding at Staples Center. Even Susan's recurring account of a local gang murder fails to cohere or resonate, and we're left feeling that the principal charm of Stuart's play is a heroine (of sorts) who ineptly tells lies for no cause greater than her own pleas

Unfortunately, that kind of charm dissipates pretty fast, and by play's end we realize the story has a hollow center. Stuart's script might have worked had it remained as vague about the day-to-day existence of its characters as it is on plot development, but because all the small details of Mayhem's lives are explained, the story, with its overlay of one-liners, plays out like an episode of Friends. The fact that the plights of Afghan women and East Timorese separatists are vented by a woman who wears pink-satin pantsuits and who, as Claire says, plans to write a book about "freeing ourselves from clutter," only relegates these subjects to the status of punch lines.

It's not all slapstick, however. There is a silent moment of Chaplinesque delight, when Susan and Claire, in preparation for a women's march against the convention, bring home a pair of black burkas and carefully put them on, encountering both the garments' frailty and their impracticality. The scene is a striptease in reverse, and director Bart DeLorenzo allows it to play out with comic solemnness. His lead actress, Mullally, is similarly restrained, a self-beaten character in glasses and dowdy clothes who seems able to spend every day of her unremarkable life folding laundry.

Offerman, as David, though, brings the play to its feet whenever he opens his sarcastic mouth; his failed, aging rocker still speaks with punk candor, but now he lives in a time of corrosive dishonesty. Adams further lends credible support, as the smarmy reporter who breaks hearts and marriages along his career path. Yet White isn't merely over the top, she's fallen overboard from the deck of an entirely different play. Because of this, she doesn't really act as a foil for Susan or even as a lightning rod for the audience's presumed disdain of all things P.C.

White's volcanic performance is DeLorenzo's only miscalculation, for if she were toned down just a bit, we might be able to recognize in her misplaced activism something of ourselves, and the comedy would bite instead of swallowing us whole. DeLorenzo, as usual, is ably assisted by his Evidence Room technical staff. Martin McClendon's homey set mostly depicts a kitchen protected by window bars and accented by such familiar items as a Dustbuster, coffeemaker and Quaker Oats box, while Rand Ryan's dreary lighting plot dimly illuminates the kind of worn-out marriage that only lies can save.

VALPARAISO | By DON DeLILLO | At SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood | Through April 23

MAYHEM | By KELLY STUART | At EVIDENCE ROOM, 2220 Beverly Blvd. | Through April 19

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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