Profiles Performance Ensemble

at the Chicago Cooperative Stage

Although rampant in everyday life, absurdity is tough to achieve in the theater. It may look easy. In fact, the plays of Beckett and Ionesco sometimes evoke the philistine’s response to abstract painting–“my kid could do that!”

But absurdist literature is diabolically difficult to create. It’s supposed to spring from the unconscious–the true source of human motivation–and the only way to tap into the unconscious is through unfettered free association. The unconscious, however, delivers its nuggets in a geyser of dreck. You can’t spread that dreck over a page and create a play any more than you can splatter paint on a canvas and produce art–without method, you wind up with a mess.

The best playwrights recognize the fine line dividing the absurd from the idiotic. Don DeLillo apparently doesn’t. His play, The Day Room, aspires to absurdity, but settles for platitudes and obscurity. While trying to say something perceptive about the insanity of modern life, DeLillo resorts to the sophomoric assertion that it’s hard to distinguish the insane from supposedly normal people–a notion that went out with bell-bottoms. Mercifully, DeLillo has an impressive facility with language, so some passages are verbally interesting. But overall, his play is stupefying. At least three people in the audience on opening night fell asleep.

DeLillo is an accomplished novelist whose books do display an appreciation for the absurd. He finds plenty of black humor, for example, in White Noise, his tale about a college professor who has created a department of Hitler studies and his colleague who has dedicated himself to the analysis of car-crash films.

In the novel, however, absurdity is a condiment. In The Day Room, absurdity is the main course, but DeLillo can’t serve it in a palatable form. The first act is about a hospital patient named Wyatt who has checked in for a routine physical. Wyatt wants to get a good rest, but his roommate, Budge, insists on talking. “Talk is a passion with me,” he says.

They receive a visit from Mr. Grass, who is attached to intravenous bags dangling from a rolling stand that accompanies him everywhere. Mr. Grass explains that he suffers from “heavy water”–the stuff used in nuclear reactors. Mr. Grass also mentions that he lives in a steel tower that reflects sunlight. “People catch fire just walking by,” he says.

Well, Mr. Grass is actually a patient in the Arno Klein psychiatric wing who has slipped out of the unit, hooked himself up to some IV bags, and is now wandering about visiting. But which other characters are actually mental patients in disguise? That’s the mystery that unfolds in the first act.

In the second act, DeLillo reheats this premise and serves it again. This time the setting is a motel room occupied by a man whose wife or girlfriend is obsessed with seeing a performance by the members of the Arno Klein Theater. The TV set in the corner is represented by a man tied up in a straitjacket, who utters provocative fragments whenever anyone flips through the channels: “But Mao rejected Lenin’s model of revolution . . .” Click. “It affects me. It affects my husband. It affects . . .” Click. “Irreversible comas . . .” Click. “Saturated fats . . .” Click. “But Betty never suspected that the bottle with the blue detergent. . .”

Meanwhile, the man and woman are visited by mysterious figures who claim to know where the performance by the Arno Klein ensemble is going to take place. They engage in banal conversation that culminates in a food fight–and leaves the audience again asking, “Who’s really insane?”

The play, produced by the Chicago Cooperative Stage, doesn’t get much help from the cast or from director Ken Mitten, but in all fairness, there isn’t much they could have done to make The Day Room effective. Adrianne Curry manages to make three- dimensional characters out of the nurse in the first act and the obsessed woman in the second. Ron Wells deftly transforms himself from the crazy Mr. Grass of the first act to the sinister Freddie of the second. And Dean Anthony, who plays Wyatt, becomes an impressive television set in the second act.

But DeLillo doesn’t display much control over whatever he’s trying to accomplish in this play. He seems to be imitating Beckett, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, and other playwrights famous for their stark, perplexing scenes. The result is a highly mannered, unfocused play that revolves around an idea expressed by one of the nurses to a patient: “The deepest difference [between us] is the most superficial. I’m wearing a uniform, you are not. I have authority, you do not. . . . The person in the uniform controls the facts. That’s what uniforms are for. They prove that truth is possible.”

In a way, the irony of this speech backfires on the playwright–DeLillo seems to have donned the “uniform” of a playwright, assuming that it bestowed some sort of authority on what he said. But as his play suggests, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the competent from those merely pretending to be.