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(l. to r.) Jonathan Green and Karl Herlinger in Transparency of Val
(Photo: Suzanne Sutcliffe)
Some two thousand years ago in ancient Greece, a man named Socrates proposed a philosophy of Truth. He believed there was something called Truth, with a capital T, and that life is best spent in its pursuit. Absolute Truth meant a tidy universe of flat earth, concentric circles, natural law, and cosmic order. To Socrates, philosophy was a science, not an art, involving the systematic discovery of man's purpose and values. Val, the title character of Stephen Belber's Transparency of Val, is named after "True Value," which he describes as "the hardware store." Belber's latest asks where does one turn for guidance when Truth is a home improvement superstore?

Transparency of Val, no less sweeping in scope than Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," tackles the life cycle, sexual politics, race relations, foreign affairs, and modern religion. And it's a comedy. From the moment we see the baby Val dropped onstage--as if by a stork--we realize that this is no ordinary newborn. Val is the playwright's Computer Age Everyman, an information-overloaded neonate taught about photosynthesis before he can learn to speak. His doting parents, Sal and Rita, vow to teach him their values and imbue their mistakes with wisdom.

It was Shakespeare who said that "all the men and women are merely players" who "play many parts" in life. Minutes after we've met Val as a lump in a baby blanket, adult actor Jonathan Green takes on the role, playing the boy through the many stages of his bizarre life. But Val doesn't go through the seven neat stages Shakespeare identified. He seems perpetually stuck as the "whining school-boy," trying to find himself in a world that doesn't allow him solid footing. Friendly Nazis shatter his definitions of good and evil. His high school girlfriend, Rudi (Joan Jubett), a not-quite-post-op transsexual, upsets his ideas of gender by willing herself a penis and becoming a man. Teachers, delivering subversive lectures on acoustic guitars, challenge all of his thoughts about education. Val's absurd world finds a way to flout all of his beliefs, rendering him "transparent."

Green, with a stiff upper lip and a pleading lower one, serves the title character well. His perennially confused face, drained of all energy, is as weathered as an adult's, hopeful as a child's. Each of the six ensemble actors takes on multiple roles with chameleonic dexterity. George Hannah, whether playing a yuppie or an old window washer, makes characterization look easy. Joan Jubett handles Rudi's amorphous sexuality without falling into camp. Mike Timoney and Pamela Hart, as parents Sal and Rita, make such a funny spoof of the Leave It to Beaver family dynamic that it's amazing they find creative energy for their other characters.

These actors change costumes and characters in plain view offstage; clothes really do make the men and women of this dramatic world. Never is this clearer as when one of the Nazis disrobes to his heart-adorned boxers, telling a speechless Val, "Everybody looks good naked." Satirizing pop-psychology and moral relativity, even costumer Jennifer Halpern gets involved in the play's commentary. The rest of the technical team also joins in on the postmodern conceptual frenzy. By setting the play's war scene to the music from Platoon, sound designer David A. Gilman finds a droll way to decry the commodification of war. Scenic designer David Newell chalks the upstage wall with the phrase "We hold these truths to be self evident," a terse counterpoint to the play's Nietzschian efforts to transmute the concept of Truth.

If this sounds conceptual and heady, it is supposed to. Playwright Stephen Belber, no longer content with the realism that drove his previous dramas like Tape and Finally, chooses a dramatic style which allows him to tackle so many broad issues. Like every good absurdist, he begs a number of fundamental questions without presuming any answers. Director Sam Helfrich should be commended for making such a challenging play so accessibly funny. Though his work may be puzzling, Belber seems to suggest, so is life today.

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