To stand a chance of having a good time at Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla , it would be best if you appreciated Greco-Roman art, crystal china, Wagner, carnal desire, camp, thinness, beauty in all its forms, braided wigs, interior design, Gothic architecture and Ethel Merman.
That takes care of me. But what about you ? I enjoy Mr. Rudnick’s high and low camp, up to a point. But that point is usually reached by intermission. By then, Mr. Rudnick’s smart jokes in bad taste will have hit and missed at the rate of about 60 a minute, and he will have hammered his latest camp frolic into the ground.
I have never taken Mr. Rudnick’s plays seriously, though some do, including Mr. Rudnick. He has in mind that he’s a thinker, a dramatist of ideas and even a playwright of revolutionary significance. Tell that to his Mr. Charles of Palm Beach or to his gay version of Adam and Eve, Adam and Steve. Jeffrey was admired on a deeper level. But, as I see it, the witty Mr. Rudnick always achieves the reverse of everything he claims to be doing. He doesn’t satirize homosexual stereotypes; he reinforces them.
He’s the Mel Brooks of Off Broadway. The exuberant theme song of The Producers , “Keep It Gay”-”Keep it light / Keep it bright / Keep it gay!”-could easily be sung by one and all in Valhalla . But what about this?
The fleet’s in, but who’s in the fleet?
We’ll be Ethel Mermans
And crush all those Germans
By singing them into defeat!
That catchy little ditty wasn’t written by Mel Brooks-who is believed to be straight and ridiculously proud of it-but by Mr. Rudnick, who’s gay and ridiculously proud of it. Entitled “Soldiers and Seamen” (geddit?), the vaudevillian song is performed by two hunky gay sailors in Valhalla ‘s tribute to vintage movies like Anchors Aweigh .
The dear old British theater has been doing this sort of thing for years, since the World War II shows entitled Soldiers in Skirts . So has Off Broadway. The late Charles Ludlam, our genius of high camp, did it best of all at his Ridiculous Theatre Company of beloved memory. But the bloated Valhalla , which Mr. Rudnick has dressed up as an exploration of aesthetics via mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, is a shadow of Ludlam’s innovative work. It’s an overwritten gay romp.
Not that the dramatist’s customary scattershot wit isn’t on display: “Inner beauty is tricky,” declares the prom queen, “because you can’t prove it ….”
“You are dressed like a nun!” the Queen of Bavaria chastises her rebellious 10-year-old son.
“I know that!” he replies.
“Then act like one!”
But the comedy itself strains for effect in its overlapping stories. There’s the tale of the nutty aesthete Ludwig-No. 1 Wagner fan, builder of 19th-century fairy-tale castles and swan fetishist-and there’s James, the predatory gay boy from 1940′s small-town Texas who has a thing about a glass swan. Mr. Rudnick is trying to make a link between over-the-top gay fantasies and … over-the-top gay fantasies. He succeeds. But in spite of a certain exoticism provided by heart-stopping blasts of Wagner and references to lunatic rococo grottos, the parallel plots essentially look like the same old stereotypical plots:
Attractive gay stud hates mother in Texas; is friend of repressed high-school jock who is now engaged to secretly flighty prom queen; nude scene in locker room; boy gets boy; now soldiers, they end up in Valhalla, where former jock is overwhelmed by Gothic guilt and comes permanently out of the closet; hurrah! But tragic end, sort of.
And there’s Mr. Rudnick’s potentially more interesting story, set in 19th-century Bavaria: Queen becomes king; hates mother; worships style, surface beauty, Versailles, fabrics and Wagner; prone to fainting rapturously; builds castles in the air that become the prototype for Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle, in case you didn’t know; is briefly engaged to insecure princess with hump; hurrah! But eventually declared insane for crimes against fantasy. Tragic end, sort of.
“Do you foresee a day when a straight-nongay-play can’t get on Broadway?” Mr. Rudnick was asked in a recent Times interview.
“God willing,” he replied.
Dream on! Mr. Rudnick’s giggly triumphalism in the phony war between so-called gay and straight plays is meant to goad or amuse us. But it’s just silliness. Some of us-straight, gay or hermaphrodite-are tiring of bad gay plays, that’s all. Valhalla is one of them. From the genius-fascist Wagner’s mouth to God’s ear to … Paul Rudnick?!! There’s a difference between camp and talent kissed by God, a difference between great beauty and whimsical artifice. But Mr. Rudnick doesn’t seem to notice. “Well, you only have equal rights when you have equal trash,” he told The Times about gay culture entering the mainstream of American life.
It isn’t true. You only have equal trash in a politically correct climate when it’s given equal rights because it’s gay. Trash is trash in any culture. (And some trash is better than others.) Why does Mr. Rudnick wish to make mainstream America his artistic Valhalla? Who in their right, independent mind wants to belong to a blanded-out, Botoxed culture that celebrates “artistic” queer pets for uptight straight guys?
The stereotyping of both gays and straights in the culture trivializes them both. Mr. Rudnick’s jokes about blindness, humps and clubfeet are neither here nor there; his awful tour guide to Valhalla in spandex tackiness, named Natalie Kippelbaum, is sophomore stuff. But for a play that’s essentially about magical beauty, there’s little magic in this threadbare production.
William Ivey Long’s costumes are fine, but the boys in the royal bed at Ludwig’s imitation Versailles look as if they’ve stopped for a night in a motel. Doubtless there are budget constraints at New York Theatre Workshop, but a few handheld mirrors do not a Hohenschwangau Castle make. The cast of Valhalla is fun, and I wish they and we could have had more fun. The director is Christopher Ashley, with Peter Frechette as hysterical King Ludwig.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.