The Day Room | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Remains Theatre

Picture one of those hilarious romps from a Marx Brothers movie--Groucho dressed up as a doctor dispensing ridiculous medical advice. Now picture a graduate seminar--a pompous, tweed-wearing prof deconstructing A Day at the Races, lecturing about Groucho's inversion of the social order in prescribing horse pills to his patients and waxing philosophical about Harpo's subversion of spoken language. Then imagine that same professor writing his own Marx Brothers sketch, and you have an idea of Don DeLillo's The Day Room, a play so impressed with its absurd, idiosyncratic sense of reality that it loses both its humor and its drama.

The Day Room opens in a hospital room. Two patients, a gregarious older man named Budge and a paranoid, jittery fellow named Wyatt, await tests. Enter Grass, a peculiar patient from their floor who has hooked himself up to an IV and is claiming to suffer from the ill effects of having polyester blood and heavy water in his system. A doctor and a nurse enter and take him away, informing Budge and Wyatt that he's an escapee from the hospital's Arno Klein Psychiatric Wing. Soon after, Budge and Wyatt learn that the doctor and nurse are also psychiatric patients.

A succession of characters arrive on the scene, each claiming to be sane while declaring that all who went before them were mad. By the end of act one DeLillo has undermined our expectations to the point where we can't be sure if anything is true. Who's mad and who isn't? Are we in the hospital room where we thought we were or in the "day room," where the insane spend their days bouncing their "lonely monologues" off the white walls?

Act two takes us from an antiseptic hospital room to an antiseptic roadside motel room where a young couple, Gary and Lynette, are staying as they track down the elusive Arno Klein Theater Group, a band of guerrilla thespians who turn up in different cities from time to time and are so powerful that their audiences leave with a completely altered sense of reality. A man named Freddie who pops up in the motel room claims that before he encountered the theater group he was able to separate what was real from what was fantasy, but now the two have fused and he can't tell one from the other. "I was an ordinary man. I spoke to people in a normal tongue. I did the ordinary things. . . . A spoon was not a painting of a spoon," he tells Gary and Lynette. "All that is lost to me now. I talk to imaginary men, to ghosts on battlements. I accept it all. I believe it all. Dreams, facts, paranoid fantasies, mirages in the desert. A mirage is water and the illusion of water."

While inane, mind-numbing television shows play in the motel room, DeLillo once again tries to whisk the rug out from under the audience. The odd characters who enter and exit the room add layer upon layer of confusion until we, like Freddie, can't tell reality from illusion. The characters onstage are sane and insane, they're in a motel room and a hospital room, they're actors in the Arno Klein Theater Group and actors in DeLillo's The Day Room. There's no objective reality, only our perception of it, which--if ever challenged--could drive us mad.

This isn't a bad academic exercise, but once you realize what DeLillo's up to and accept that everything you're told is going to be turned upside down and then upside down again, the game loses a bit of its charm. The unpredictability becomes predictable.

DeLillo's aim appears to be to show how we bury our fears beneath layers of ritual and role-playing that are every bit as absurd as the rituals and role-playing of his phony doctors and nurses. In portraying the devastation the escapees from the Arno Klein Psychiatric Wing experience when they're stripped of their identities as doctors and nurses, he seems to be trying to get us to face our own fears and to understand how precariously we teeter on the edge of madness.

This may be a worthy aim, and The Day Room certainly does have its pithy moments. But DeLillo isn't exactly exploring new territory here. His play is a rather hackneyed pastiche of Pirandello, Beckett, Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and that old Monty Python skit about psychiatric patients posing as physicians ("There's a proper doctor to see you now, sir"). DeLillo also has a tendency to restate and overstate the obvious, as when one of the nurses muses on "the narrow scope of the roles we play" or when an actress from the Arno Klein troupe observes, "We only do one play. We do it over and over. It's the only thing we know."

What's most alienating about DeLillo's play is that its plot seems less driven by the actions of its characters than by the author's need to state theses. Asking the metaphysical question "What the hell is going on here?" isn't a bad idea, but it's not enough for an entire play. When no character is what he or she appears to be and personality is merely artificial armor against reality, the world DeLillo presents is necessarily cold and ultimately uninteresting.

Neel Keller's production at Remains is well paced and cleanly directed, but Keller makes some bizarre alterations in DeLillo's script, most notably eliminating the author's instruction that a live actor play the television in act two and act out all of the TV programs. Using voice-overs instead eliminates one of DeLillo's most intriguing ideas.

As usual for a Remains production, the acting is pretty much first-rate. The best performances come from the spry, crusty Nathan Davis as both Budge and Arno Klein and Holly Wantuch's engagingly offbeat portrayals of a nurse and a maid. Amy Morton, who stepped into the role of Lynette at the last minute, acts stiffly and monotonously. David Alan Novak's Wyatt has some effective comic moments but swallows too many of his lines. In a classy move Remains has captions for the hearing impaired on two video screens above the stage, which come in handy for deciphering a few of Novak's early speeches.

Michael Philippi's brilliant set changes masterfully from stark hospital room to impersonal motel room and back again, but it's too much like DeLillo's play. DeLillo chastises us for hiding under layers of artifice, but his play does the same thing. Once you strip away all the wordplay and games of mistaken perceptions, you're left with very little.

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