Not quite parallel universes collide in comic quest for perfection
You couldn't pick a pair of parallel story lines less likely ever to intersect.
In "Valhalla" -- treated to a sprightly New England premiere by the Zeitgeist Stage Company -- playwright/humorist Paul Rudnick manages to intertwine the lives of Ludwig, the mad king of Bavaria, and James Avery, a gay charmer chafing at the lamentable taste of the 1940s Texas town he had the bad luck to have been born into.
The latter, played fetchingly by Jon Ferreira, is some bad boy. When, as a teen, James burns down the family split-level, he has a simple explanation: "I redecorated."
Zippy one-liners that catch you unaware are Rudnick's specialty, and they pile up fast in this cleverly constructed farce. What Ludwig and James have in common (beyond their sexual orientation, pretty much a given in Rudnick's dramatic universe) is an intense hunger for aesthetic rapture. For the two young protagonists, whom we first meet at the age of 10, that means a shared fascination with a swan: in James's case, a crystal swan in a department store display case that he feels compelled to purloin, and in young Ludwig's world (Brian Quint plays the princeling as an endearing odd duck), a live swan to whom he passionately proposes marriage.
As James and Ludwig's lives unfold (separately, until the very end), four other actors -- all brilliantly cast and extraordinarily adaptive -- play a panoply of supporting roles. Maureen Adduci is especially protean as, alternately, James and Ludwig's moms (one is a battered wife who speaks in a defeated drawl; the other a haughty master manipulator), various unsuitable princesses (Ludwig is under pressure to produce an heir), and, ultimately, a bus tour guide who kvells over Ludwig's castle in "kawfee tawk" Long Guylandese.
Elisa MacDonald is wonderfully smug as an entitled Texas teen queen and later makes a touching Princess Sophie, the fellow misfit who captures Ludwig's heart if not his hand. (Rudnick's treatment of gay men and the women who love them is tender and perceptive.)
Christopher Michael Brophy, tall and strapping, plays James's childhood love object, who protesteth too much that he's straight; their romantic history is one prolonged seduction. Brophy also plays Ludwig's personal trainer Helmut, dispenser of vigorous hands-on sex-ed lectures, and an opera singer -- Ludwig is quite mad for "Lohengrin" -- who's just one among a string of post-performance quickies. (Says Ludvig: "I've had two Tristans . . ." ).
Rick Park shoulders six roles, including that of Princess Ursula the Unusual. "In Albania they have a name for girls like me," flirts Ursula, her bristly mustache inadequately veiled by a fluttering fan. "The goalie?" ventures Ludwig.
The laughs never stop flowing, and yet a serious thesis -- about the primacy of the search for beauty -- lurks beneath all the silliness. Zeitgeist's production is of necessity fairly plain, but threadbare it's not: Seth Bodie's costumes, including a couple of bejeweled hobbyhorse outfits, are lavish and evocative. If the lighting and amping are both a bit pallid (the sound system needs a serious upgrade if it's to do Wagner justice), these shortcomings are of no consequence, because the script shines through regardless.
Director s Park and David J. Miller have done Boston a real favor in plucking up this play, which got inexplicably sour reviews during its 2004 New York premiere. Maybe the constraints of a modest black box are a plus here; the skilled, game actors certainly are.