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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  A Few Clouds
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University Theatre production of Don DeLillo's Valparaiso lacks punch
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Santiago Sosa, Liz Cassarino and jaki-terry in University Theatre's <i>Valparaiso</i>.
Santiago Sosa, Liz Cassarino and jaki-terry in University Theatre's Valparaiso.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

It begins and ends with screens. As the show commences, moments after the audience has shut off the tiny, glowing screens of iPhones and Blackberries, we're greeted by the larger illuminated screen of a flat-panel TV. And when it's all over, we're left with the same inscrutable glow, both comforting and alien.

The latest University Theatre production, Valparaiso, is the work of Don DeLillo, better known as a novelist for books like White Noise and Underworld. I loved White Noise for its paranoiac brilliance and hoped that Valparaiso, which tackles themes of tabloid journalism and reality TV, would be equally gripping.

Unfortunately, aside from its very strong visual and technical elements, Valparaiso, which opened Friday in UW Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre, just doesn't hang together. DeLillo is better on the page than the stage, apparently. Particularly in the first act, stilted, self-conscious language seems to hold the cast back.

While the second act has more blood in its veins, DeLillo's cryptic, probing weirdness and dark humor (like references to "erotomaniacal underwear," for starters) again seem better suited to his novels.

Valparaiso centers on Michael Majeski (Santiago Sosa), who sets off on a business trip to Valparaiso, Ind., and ultimately winds up in Valparaiso, Chile. This improbable but insignificant incident makes him a media darling. He gives, we are told, 140 interviews in four and half days.

As Michael's media saturation wears on, we learn things that make us think that perhaps his wild ride was an attempt at escape, not just a travel snafu. His robotic wife, Livia (Liz Cassarino), exercises compulsively and shows hints of cruelty. Michael's also in trouble for a drunk-driving incident.

Michael develops from a wooden, detached figure who can only explain his journey in the simplest of terms ("We took off. We flew.") to a media fixture with slicked-back hair who allows talk-show host Delfina Treadwell (Jaki-terry), a Satanic Oprah of sorts, to draw out dark secrets. ("I sometimes think I'm clinically self-absorbed," Delfina coos.)

But despite the of-the-moment themes -- all the more impressive since the play was written in 1999, before reality TV exploded -- Valparaiso winds up being prescient but ineffectual. Contemporary culture, in all its banality and horror, has so superseded DeLillo's world that the play's impact is blunted.

Credit is due, though, to director Jeremy Thomas Poulsen, set designer Katy Lai, lighting designer Katie H. Kudrick, media designer Dale Kaminski and sound designer John Salutz for creating an audience experience appropriate to the play.

One example: as Michael spills his guts on The Delfina Show, we are torn between watching him live on stage, right before us, and his face in close-ups on TV monitors flanking the stage. In our current moment, even when we have access to the "real thing," there is always that tug between the real and the mediated.

Valparaiso is best when it loosens up a bit. In a relatively small role -- Delfina's cocky-yet-sycophantic sidekick, Teddy -- Joe Lullo stands out. Cassarino, as Livia, is also enjoyable to watch in her matter-of-fact amorality, and I enjoyed Jaki-terry's narcissism.

Yet while it's easy to think of real-world analogues to the seemingly insane world of Valparaiso (where "everything is on the record"), that alone does not give UT's latest production the trenchant punch it needs.

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