The search for beauty, whether physical or spiritual, in the face of overwhelming odds is at the center of Valhalla, Paul Rudnick's funny and fascinating new play at the New York Theatre Workshop. Rudnick weaves together threads of stories about homosexuality, opera, madness, and more into a tapestry of comedy, drama, and rich color in ways that are themselves quite beautiful.
He does this by examining two very different characters and showing not only how their similar personalities and mindsets are mirrors of the times in which they lived, but how their stories and the changing attitudes and perceptions of homosexuals are intertwined. Though James Avery (Sean Dugan) and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Peter Frechette) never met, Rudnick works hard to demonstrate how they were very much the same person, though living about a hundred years apart.
Each man longs for more. James desperately yearns to escape from the stifling confines of his small Texas hometown and find all the art and perfection the world has to offer, while Ludwig finds his emotional fulfillment in the operas of Richard Wagner. James's quest leads him from one place (and bed) to another until - through military service - he ends up in 1940s Germany, where he is exposed to the opulence of the great castles the eccentric (and possibly mad) Ludwig constructed as tributes to Wagner's works.
Far from being a somber, overly reflective treatment of these weighty subjects, Valhalla is irreverently theatrical and often very funny. A great deal of this is due to the work of director Christopher Ashley, who deftly (and seamlessly) stages the stories and has imposed an intoxicating comic style over every element of the production. Valhalla's characters always seem almost but not quite real, humorous shades of real types presented with solid consistency. Thomas Lynch's sparse but adaptable set, William Ivey Long's extravagantly colorful costumes, Kenneth Posner's dazzling lights, and Mark Bennett's integral sound design help everyone along.
Key to the proceedings are Dugan and Frechette, who center the action and help the play move so swiftly, each act is over scarcely before it feels like it's begun. Dugan's violent intensity provides an excellent contrast to Frechette's hilarious come-what-may attitude; the two men keenly present two very different sides to the same coin. Even though the characters interact only very rarely, it's difficult to imagine either actor's performance working quite as well without the other.
There's also little fault to be found with the four remaining performers. Scott Barrow, Candy Buckley, Samantha Soule, and Jack Willis play, between them, no fewer than 18 other distinct, memorable characters. Of course, given the play's dramatic conceit, finding the connections between the characters any one actor plays is a huge part of the fun: Barrow plays both James's lifelong love interest (named Henry Lee) and the man who introduces Ludwig to sex; Buckley plays both men's mothers; Soule plays the women that factor most importantly into their lives; and Willis takes on just about everyone else. Each performance each actor gives feels just right.
Valhalla as a whole does as well. It's filled with clever moments and brilliant bits of dramatic business that may be quirky, but never feel out of place: Ludwig's procession of prospective brides (each played by a different actor or actress), James's impromptu army song and dance, Ludwig's imaginary joust, and the climactic scene in a Ludwig-constructed castle that not only brings all six actors together in a dance of ecstatic joy, but ties them to our present.
But there's no finer moment than the sumptuous first act finale, a walloping cacophony of a dual wedding, taking place simultaneously in James's life (Henry Lee's marriage to James's one-time fixation, Sally) and in Ludwig's (a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin). This melding of opulent visuals, majestic music, great comic performances, and Rudnick's writing is as dynamic and compelling a scene as any New York theatre has produced in recent memory.
For the play, the scene is key, and is - as the show's characters might approve - beautiful and perfect. The rest of Valhalla isn't far behind.
New York Theatre Workshop