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Jack Willis and Peter Frechette in Valhalla
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The first words that Peter Frechette -- wearing Little Lord Fauntleroy gear and a long, wavy wig -- blurts when he bursts through metal double-doors in Paul Rudnick's Valhalla are, "I'm out of my mind." After a pause, he adds, "With excitement." There's meant to be a joke there: Frechette, who holds nothing back in his exclamations, is portraying the 10-year-old Ludwig of Bavaria, a boy who ascended to the throne at 18 and was declared mad when he'd been king for more than 20 years.

But the gag doesn't work, because, for one, audience members need to know beforehand that they're watching a play about mad King Ludwig. It also doesn't work because it's just not funny. The same can be said for much of the rest of Rudnick's latest piece -- which, like many of his previous plays, seems to demand that the homosexual minority be accepted by the greater heterosexual majority. It's a noble aim but one not likely to come about through dramaturgical arm-twisting.

In Valhalla, Rudnick once again includes nudity and men passionately kissing. (There's more of that onstage in New York currently than there is heterosexual smooching, or there certainly seems to be.) But it isn't Ludwig or anyone in his court who gets naked. That takes place in a counterpoint story wherein a cranky, amoral Texan named James Avery (Sean Dugan), growing up in the '40s, manipulates chum Henry Lee Stafford (Scott Barrow) and their mutual friend Sally Mortimer (Samantha Soule) through school days and the ensuing World War II years. Rudnick's notion seems to be that Ludwig and James have had similar lives thrust on them because of their alienation from conventional society.

As he weaves the stories together, Rudnick underlines the Ludwig/James connection through the use of a symbolic swan: Ludwig is obsessed with the swan in Richard Wagner's Lohengrin and James has stolen a crystal swan from a store that Sally's dad owns. (If it's a Lalique swan he's pocketed, it'd cost $4,600 or more today; no wonder he got his at a five-finger discount!) Trying to understand his country and do right by it, Ludwig only finds brief happiness with a hump-backed princess, Sophie (Soule again) and by building the extravagant castles that finally convince those around him that all that marble proves he's lost his marbles. James, who forfeits Henry Lee to Sally at the altar, does better when the two pals get to Germany and consummate their love in Ludwig territory.

The stories' parallel lines meet a few times through Rudnick's occasionally ingenious structuring. The best of these confluences occurs at the end of the first act when Ludwig, stage left, attends a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin and is transported by that well-known wedding march while, stage right, the supposed Henry Lee-Sally nuptials take place with a ceremony-stopping catch. Rudnick also contrives incidents that lead to matching breakdowns for the light-fingered James and the light-headed Ludwig. And, among the scenes that momentarily dispel the gloom of misfiring laugh lines, he includes a sequence in which Ludwig interviews possible consorts. Three oddball gals in lavish William Ivey Long frippery show up -- respectively played by Soule, Candy Buckley, and Jack Willis in the mustache he sports throughout the play.

But though Rudnick is occasionally clever in the way that he deploys the dual Ludwig and James histories -- often with more than one character speaking the same line(s) in unison -- his purpose is marred by a murkiness about what he wants to say with the tandem situations. There is his continuing message about the plight of homosexual couples, which he last plugged in The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. That farrago also took place in two time periods (pre-historic Eden and today) and, in it, Adam and Steve figured -- one of them saying, "We're gay. We don't have children. We have taste." Maybe it's taste about which Rudnick's most concerned: It's intrinsic to Ludwig, with his love of Wagner and his Schloss-building fervor; and it's intrinsic to James, who snatches the swan because, as he insists, "It was beautiful." James also appreciates Greco-Roman statuary as erotic and he seduces Henry Lee with a book of pertinent photographs.

Sean Dugan and Samantha Soule
in Valhalla
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Possibly, Rudnick thinks that so-called good taste -- of the sort that interior decorators are assumed to have -- is explained away as madness by those who don't share it. Maybe he thinks that the last, sane refuge of the homosexual is the 400-thread sateen sheet. But there's no grasping Rudnick's thesis for certain. Maybe he himself isn't sure what he's trying to say, aside from hoping that all will end with the kind of understanding that he inserts at the play's fade-out by returning to the swan that Ludwig and James worship.

One thing Rudnick doesn't seem worried about is being funny -- but maybe he should rethink his confidence, because the mechanics of his jokes are getting rusty. (It's the Neil Simon syndrome.) Besides the thud of his play-opening go at humor, there are countless additional examples of his setting up a line for a non-sequitur response that he (and, admittedly, a few people in the audience) deems risible. For example: James says, "When a book is forbidden and sick and evil, when it's in the adult section, it has special, dark powers. Do you know what they call those books?" Henry Lee asks, "What?" James replies, "Bestsellers." Ludwig says to his mother (Candy Buckley), "I have this terrible problem and I know it's completely my fault, but when I see something -- not beautiful, when it's drab and misshapen, when it's -- what's the word?" The queen replies, "English?" There are a handful of genuine thigh-slappers in Valhalla that won't be quoted here, for then there would be even less reason to see the play.

In a production directed by Christopher Ashley with too much hysteria but nicely dressed by William Ivey Long, lit by Kenneth Posner, and economically enshrined by Thomas Lynch, the cast members are generous with their talents. Peter Frechette throws himself with admirable shamelessness and swinging limbs into another gay -- well, sexually ambivalent -- character. Sean Dugan, whose eyes glint, is cute with sinister edges as James. Playing many roles, Scott Barrow (the naked one), Samantha Soule, Jack Willis, and Candy Buckley (sometimes looking and sounding like Angela Lansbury) are versatile and must be hyperactive backstage as they make all those costume and wig changes. Incidentally, Buckley plays Jewish tour guide Natalie Kippelbaum with what looks like a Judith Leiber minaudière strapped around her middle; the character could be a cousin to Rudnick's movie-reviewer alter ego, Libby Gelman-Waxner.

The braying Natalie has a one-liner about Jews and Wagner that only partially answers the question of Rudnick's seeming salute to the German composer. Perhaps a funnier play on the subject would have dealt with what Jews who love Wagner's music go through to justify that love. But Valhalla is not that play.

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