The Day Room
by Don DeLillo
at the American Repertory Theater
S LIKE, WHAT'S REALLY, YOU know real?
In junior high schools across the country this question--and kindred statements such as, "For all I know you don't exist"--have long provoked upperclassmen to perform wedgies upon hapless would-be philosophers. Yet the issue refuses to be dismissed with the onset of puberty.
Drama, in particular, naturally lends itself to the issue of illusion versus reality--being as it is an illusion of sorts itself. When Shaggy and Scooby pulled the mask off the Swamp Monster to discover that it was none other than kindly Mr. Hoople, the caretaker, they were retracing the philosophical footsteps of Dorothy, Alice, and the ancient Chinese sage who asked himself, "Am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"
By the late twentieth century, however, the whole reality issue has become virtually fossilized. It is surprising, then, to discover that in The Day Room playwright Don DeLillo has managed to extract some delightfully fresh material from such an overworked vein.
The play opens in a semi-private hospital room--or so it seems; in this play, no one can be too certain of anything. As patients Jeremy Geidt and Thomas Derrah are alternately confused, comforted, and terrified by a stream of mind-bending loonies on the loose from a neighboring psychiatric ward known as (what else) the Day Room, it becomes clear that nothing whatsoever is as clear as it seems.
DeLillo attempts to use his cast of madmen to dual advantage, on one hand steering their insane hallucinations towards the "serious" questioning of madness and reality, and simultaneously manipulating their insanity into hilarious buffoonery. A headcase in point is John Bottoms as the Man With Synthetic Bodily Fluids. He practically steals the show with his twisted non sequiturs, including a description of a suit made of polyester blood. And Jeremy Geidt turns in a wonderfully manic performance as a man obsessed with conversation.
The restaging by David Wheeler, based on last year's production directed by Michael Bloom, takes maximum advantage of the versatile A.R.T. company. The Day Room is a play within a play within a play, a whirlwind voyage into the realm of metaphysical therapy in which the cast must shed their identities more rapidly than a den of snakes. And the cast, without exception, demonstrates chameleonlike skill.
If the play's main strength is its fast-paced verbal virtuosity, then its drawback is the lack of substance beneath the glibness. The Day Room wants to be a serious play done humorously, but it is the humor that ultimately dominates weakest moments occur when the characters are forced to face the logical ramifications of their illogical world. Had DeLillo taken his own contrivances less seriously, the audience would be spared monologues on such silly questions as: what if the world is just a figment of one's imagination? It is a child's question, as DeLillo admits; but then, so are the answers.
DeLillo is also on dubious footing in tangling with the romantic notion of insanity as a kind of anti-societal enlightenment. Besides already having been flogged to death, the notion of the insane as somehow lucky is grotesquely unfair to real-life residents of psychiatric institutions, who suffer the completely unromantic, destructive, and painful effects of mental illness.
While The Day Room can be faulted for what it tries to be, it cannot be faulted for its ultimate success--as a clever, witty series of surprises and startling situations. Larger issues aside, the inhabitants of the asylum and their quest for a better reality make for an intriguing psychological mystery. Gradually the audience realizes that it is witness to an elaborate game; but what kind of game, and who's playing, remain elusive questions.
Some of the more priceless moments of The Day Room have only tangential relevance to the action at hand. One of the benefits of having all one's characters lunatics is that virtually any parenthetical comment may be expanded into a foolishly profound discourse. Richard Grusin, playing a sleazy motel desk clerk, launches into an elegy on stains and their makers, while Thomas Derrah portrays a straightjacketed mental patient and Middle American T.V. set simultaneously with equal conviction and vigor.
Loy Arcenas's simple yet imaginative set design serves as a visually summary of the situation the play. Behind the smaller sets which represent the locations of the individual vignettes looms the flaking, run-down walls of what is clearly a psychiatric ward; the encapsulation of one set within the other parallels the encapsulation of one imaginary existence within another. The entire set is fairly constricted for the large stage of the Loeb Theater, effectively mirroring the inmates' feelings of confinement.
Although hardly flawless, The Day Room is impressively successful as DeLillo's first play. Its return to Cambridge was no doubt encouraged by last year's well-received A.R.T. run. Theatergoers are fortunate to have another crack at it, especially given the uneven quality of this season's A.R.T. offerings. Lately, first-rate scripts seem hard to come by, and Don DeLillo looks to be a valuable resource in the future. Let's hope his promise is no mere illusion.