Peter Frechette and Samantha Soule in Valhalla(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Peter Frechette and Samantha Soule in Valhalla
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
How did Paul Rudnick become controversial? There is no playwright more anxious to please, but critics -- not to mention theatergoers -- seem strongly divided over his latest effort, Valhalla, which recently opened at the New York Theatre Workshop. We have a good fix on the division because we, ourselves, don't agree on this play -- and we tend to agree on most things. This just goes to prove that comedy is the most difficult genre in which to succeed, and that no rationalization justifies a comedy that doesn't make one laugh. Simply put, Scott laughed at Valhalla but Barbara didn't. Or, at least, she didn't laugh as much.

The knock on the play, in part, is that it deals in gay clichés. Rudnick's gay audience would appear to be rebelling at his insistent use of stereotypes; if a straight writer portrayed gay characters in such a flamboyant manner, would the press and the public be up in arms? Still, the most pertinent questions here are: Is the play funny, is it well written, and does it pay off at the end? The two of us agree on the first point; no one in the theater today tosses off one-liners with more zing than Rudnick. (Scott may have laughed twice as much as Barbara did, but Barbara concedes that there are a lot of funny lines in the play.) The real problem with Valhalla has to do with the play's structure:

BARBARA: We know that the two stories -- the tale of Texas bad boy James Avery (Sean Dugan) and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Peter Frechette) -- are meant to twist around each other like a double helix, the characters' gay DNA making them brothers (or is that sisters?) across two centuries. But the parallels are forced and the connections are sometimes heavy-handed. There are moments -- particularly the end of the first act -- when Rudnick's soaring imagination helps to mask the play's faulty structure, but those moments are exceptional.

SCOTT: Hey, I like your double helix/DNA line and I agree with you about the end of the first act, but I take issue with what you said about the play's structure. Rudnick has always been terrible at story construction but this is the first time I thought he really built a plot that had a beginning, middle, and end. I'll concede that the sudden change in the James Avery character at the end of the play is inexplicable. Nonetheless, I was surprised (and pleased) to see that Rudnick wasn't just writing jokes; he has a sincere and serious theme running through the play that I find moving, particularly at the end. In essence, the point of Valhalla is that the pursuit of beauty is a worthy goal and can inspire others. The world can be an ugly place, and finding or creating or building that which is beautiful can make our lives a little bit brighter.

BARBARA: Listen to you! You make the play sound much better than it is. I liked William Ivey Long's fanciful costumes and Christopher Ashley's well-paced direction. I also felt that the actors got everything they could out of the material, and then some. In particular, Sean Dugan, whom we first noticed in Shakespeare's R & J, truly stands out in Valhalla. His tightly wrapped anger, coupled with his stinging delivery, brought a unique dynamic to his performance. This is the best role that Peter Frechette has had in a long time; he was a pure delight. And I have to mention Candy Buckley, who played four roles and was hilarious at every turn.

SCOTT: I agree with you about the actors. I'll add that Jack Willis was great fun in six different roles, Scott Barrow was a wonderful foil for Sean Dugan, and Samantha Soule shows considerable comic flair as the hunchbacked princess who inspires King Ludwig to accept himself as he is. She's a great beauty and she's worth watching; I predict that we'll be seeing a lot of her.

BARBARA: Readers, please note that Scott didn't mention the full frontal male nudity in the play but commented on the pretty actress. It's worth remembering that all critics have their biases!

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Jackie Hoffman(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Jackie Hoffman
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Jackie Hoffman's Kvetching Continues...

Brilliantly building upon her featured role(s) in Hairspray, Jackie Hoffman has created a musical comedy act that's a bona fide hit. Long cabaret runs are rare these days, particularly at Joe's Pub, where the average stay of any one artist is about three performances. Hoffman, on the other hand, has parlayed great reviews and strong word-of-mouth into a series of extensions that now have her playing six more dates than originally scheduled: You can catch her at Joe's on March 1, 8, 15, & 29, and on April 19 & 25. (As a consequence, she's one of the very few acts at this venue with enough performances to be eligible for a MAC Award next year.)

No one complains more comically than Hoffman; the more bitter and belittled she feels the funnier her act. Her connection to Hairspray gives her comedy an anchor in that everyone in the audience at Joe's Pub has likely seen the musical, and she uses our knowledge of her minimal Broadway stage time to excellent effect. But what's best about Hoffman is that she doesn't tell jokes, she simply tells the truth with a razor's edge. Often, the razor is held to her own throat -- and we laugh because it's her throat, not ours.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]