The two heroes of Paul Rudnick’s new play are in thrall to beauty, but the playwright himself is in thrall to good jokes. Rudnick will gleefully throw logic, character and plot out the window when he finds a good setup line, detonating a joke no matter what the cost to context. Heck, he’d probably sell his own grandma for the perfect punch line.
This can be a useful propensity — it’s made Rudnick a well-paid go-to guy in Hollywood when your screenplay needs a sprinkling of crisp quips. And it provides “Valhalla” with a good dozen or more explosively funny moments, more than many writers can muster in a career.
But it tends to get in the way of his playwriting, and “Valhalla” is a prime example. Its two main characters, a gay adolescent growing up in 1940s Texas and the “mad” King Ludwig II of 19th-century Bavaria, are dreamers similarly oppressed by the cultural climates of their eras. But they’re not so much hostages to history as hostages to Rudnick’s insatiable lust for a great gag. When the wisecracks recede in the second act, they are left high and dry, as is the audience.
Sean Dugan plays the sexually precocious young James Avery, a 12-year-old aesthete uncomfortably stuck in suburban Texas, pre-World War II. When his mama scolds him for stealing a crystal swan from the local department store, little James taunts her for her gaucheness, calling her a “vicious, dried-up woman with bad hair and no taste.” She raises a hand to strike him, and he delivers the coup de grace: “Fine. Hit me again. But just look at your dining room.” It’s a delicious line, but any semblance of authenticity — of period and of character — is sacrificed for an easy laugh.
Later, little James attempts to seduce his boyhood pal, Henry Lee (Scott Barrow), with a book swiped from the “adult” table in the library. “When a book is forbidden and sick and evil, when it’s in the adult section, it has special, dark powers,” he whispers seductively. “Do you know what they call those books?” “What?” asks the goggle-eyed Henry Lee. “Bestsellers.”
So it goes in old Bavaria, too. Peter Frechette flounces with happy abandon as the dizzy King Ludwig, famous for his obsession with Wagnerian opera and a castle-building spree that ended with the Bavarian parliament having him declared bonkers. But he, too, is mostly either a purveyor of distinctly 21st-century-style one-liners or a foil for them.
His mother warns him that if he doesn’t control his addictions, Ludwig will end up like his grandfather, who “was forced to do something horrible. Something unthinkable. Something that no king of any country should ever, ever have to do.” Such a carefully constructed setup is not likely to go unexploited. In horror, Ludwig asks, “His own laundry?”
Poaching it may be, but it’s hard to resist quoting Rudnick’s more inspired lines, because beyond these bright bursts of humor there’s not much to celebrate about his skills as a playwright. Rudnick knows a play cannot merely be a compendium of jokes, but he doesn’t display a firm sense of what it should be. In structure and tone, “Valhalla” is wildly messy, despite the assertively stylish frame of Christopher Ashley’s production, which features witty, plush costumes from Broadway costumer William Ivey Long, generous lashings of rococo lighting by Kenneth Posner and cleverly minimalist sets by Thomas Lynch.
The cast is first-rate, too. Frechette is enjoyably besotted as Ludwig, Dugan and Barrow appealing as the star-crossed would-be lovers. The lushly pretty Samantha Soule displays wickedly precise comic flair in two roles, as the putative love objects and/or beards of all three men. And Jack Willis and, particularly, Candy Buckley are appropriately flamboyant in a variety of comic turns.
The theme that links the play’s two strands is the consuming desire for beauty that sets both little James and dotty Ludwig apart, and, in the play’s elaborate, time-traveling climax, brings them together. But it is not very cogently or consistently developed. In fact, aside from that initial incident with the crystal swan, James seems primarily interested in rescuing his true love, Henry Lee, from a stultifying life with wife and kids in Texas, turning this half of the play into a half-baked coming-out saga.
Nor does the odd life of nutty King Ludwig gain any dramatic traction, despite latecoming attempts to point up its poignant aspects. As the performers hustle around the stage with increasing speed in the second act, in a game attempt to disguise the writing’s flimsiness, the play seems to evaporate around them. Even Rudnick’s steady stream of jokes dries up, leaving nothing in its place but a little puddle of sentiment.