VALHALLA * Written by Paul Rudnick * Directed by Christopher Ashley * Starring Peter Frechette and Sean Dugan * New York Theater Workshop, New York City, through April 4.

Science has more or less given up on trying to determine the origin of homosexuality, but Paul Rudnick hasn’t. Many of his plays are nothing less than gay creation myths. Asked “What causes homosexuality?” the proud, stereotypically queeny title character of Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach replies, “I do!” The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told filled us in on the saga of Adam and Steve. His new play Valhalla uses the biography of King Ludwig II, the 19th century “Mad King of Bavaria,” to launch a meditation on the gay obsession with beauty. In essence, it asks: which came first, homosexuality or a distaste for brown wallpaper and pink chenille bedspreads?

Rudnick intricately cross-cuts between the life of Ludwig (a bravely over-the-top performance by Peter Frechette) and the fictional story of James Avery (the ever-adorable Sean Dugan), a small-town Texan who grew up in the 1930s. James is the kind of precocious gay kid whose defense, when caught stealing a crystal swan from a department store, is “I needed it.” Ludwig is a fanatical opera-lover and swoony romantic who bankrupts his country’s treasury building rococo castles all over Bavaria. The two storylines ultimately intersect when James and his boyhood friend/lover Henry Lee parachute into the German countryside as World War II soldiers and stumble upon one of Ludwig’s fairy-tale palaces. 

The parallel stories let Rudnick explore multiple perspectives on the allure of beauty. For both characters, the fixation begins as an escape -- from mundanity, from poverty, from hetero-normativity. Are gay tastemakers on a spiritual mission, teaching people to appreciate God’s grace made manifest? Are they champions of non-conformity? Or are they snobbish busybodies? Do they inspire creativity and excellence? Or are they encouraging a preoccupation with mere artifice, shiny but shallow? Rudnick makes us considers all of the above.

The structure of the play is wildly and admirably ambitious, but as the chronology plods on, the second act bogs down in plot manipulations. It’s the trade-off for the first act’s nonstop barrage of Rudnick’s trademark twisted joking. When James gets out of reform school, Sally the homecoming queen is intrigued to learn that he’d attended a prom. “Was there a theme?” she asks. “Just Relax,” reports James. Bada-boom. Sally ponders how much more effective religious leaders would be if they were better-looking. “You’re not even allowed to have a picture of Mohammed,” she points out. “Was it the teeth?” 

Call him the gay Neil Simon, accuse him of being formulaic or mechanical or whatever you want, but Paul Rudnick never fails to make me laugh my head off.

The Advocate, March 16, 2004