There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Thirteen years can be an eternity, especially if we’re talking the last 13. In 1989, the Woolly Mammoth company put on what by all accounts was an electric and indelible version of Don DeLillo’s The Day Room, an absurdist comedy set in a mental hospital. (As a longtime subscriber said to me: “It’s one of the shows that made Woolly Woolly.”)
Now the Woollies are reprising the show with the original’s director and several of its cast members. They’re smart enough not to think they can step in the same river twice, but they didn’t reckon on how the whole landscape has changed. Once outrageous and perhaps oracular in its evocation of general dread, The Day Room now feels normal, maybe even understated. We’re all paranoid today—we don’t have any disbelief left to suspend.
There hasn’t been a hospital unit this blowhardy or free-for-all since M*A*S*H. It’s the kind of place that would diagnose amputation for a knee scrape and then cut off the wrong leg. Budge (Grover Gardner), the self-described “readmission” patient who opens the play doing tai chi in an antiseptic semiprivate room (by set designer Robin Stapley), serves as the ringmaster of yak. Played by Gardner as a Brooklyn-accented, crunchy-granola kind of guy, Budge craves intense, meaningful conversations. And nobody in The Day Room disappoints him—not even his squeamish new roommate, Wyatt (Rob Leo Roy), a man so uptight even his pajamas are pinstriped gray.
The entire cast eventually crashes through Budge and Wyatt’s door to chat, some of them warning of an “Arno Klein Wing” down the hall where all the nuts get squirreled away (wink wink). In fact, The Day Room is little more than a play of entrances: The characters all appear speaking with an initial calm authority that gradually reveals cracks—at which point they’re whisked away by hospital personnel. That we’re still surprised the fifth time the rug is pulled out from under us testifies to the bravura performances director Howard Shalwitz has gotten out of most of his cast.
But DeLillo aspires to more than mere comedy. He wants to skewer the ways we disguise life’s cruelties from ourselves, so he peppers The Day Room with references to escapes big and small—from the ubiquity of role-playing to the ubiquity of euphemism. (“Straitjacket,” we learn, has become “camisole” or “posey.”) Some of this works: Jennifer Mendenhall’s Nurse Walker delivers an orgasmically breathless account of how corpses are wrapped for the trip from hospital room to morgue, made into objects you can roll down the hall without gathering so much as a glance. The truly funny bits are also slightly chilling, as if Abbott and Costello were reading from The Stranger.
Too often, though, DeLillo stays on his soapbox. “Disease isn’t the illness, just a symptom of the illness—knowing you’re going to die,” says Walker at an early pivotal point. Right…#and isn’t disease usually part of that process? Such idle philosophizing predominates in The Day Room.
In the second act, cast members double as a set of theater junkies who’ve gathered at a remote hotel to see a performance of the mysterious, quasi-Situationist Arno Klein Group (nudge nudge), which may be nothing more than a rumor. The concept entertains for a while, then devolves into more didacticism about the theatricality of life (and the superior insight of actors).
“We show you how to hide from what you know….We’re like everybody else—we’re just quicker to pick up on the danger,” announces Jolene (Denise J. Hart), a Klein Group member. Oh, please. Just in case you miss the message, the Orderlies (Mando Alvarado and Bethany Hoffman) assemble the set before you in Act 2, complete with nightstands labeled “Stage Left” and “Stage Right.”
Still, when DeLillo does connect, it’s for a home run, affording Woolly’s players chances for brilliant turns. One great scene in Act 2 features Mendenhall’s Lynette and John Dow’s suave Manville goading each other into erotic climax merely by talking, face-to-face phone sex that’s a tour de force of impersonation and mutual charisma. And then there’s Roy’s rubber-faced imitation of cable TV, risking whiplash as the other characters “click” him through about a dozen channels, his funny free-associations gradually turning empty and ominous.
But the script militates against distinction. DeLillo the playwright makes all his characters sound like DeLillo the novelist: amazed, playful, portentous, and ultimately inconsequential, all the maxims blurring. He’s much better at atmospherics than he is at diagnosis—he makes you think he’s onto a vast global conspiracy, but he doesn’t give you the tools to see it yourself. And his effects (once you come to anticipate them) become formulaic, such as when Michael Russotto’s madman Grass says: “I’m trying to buy the air rights over Lake Michigan….There is real estate, and there is unreal estate.”
This particular Day Room also still lacks an edge of menace that would complement the play’s humor—it’s as comfortable as a slipper after a cold tile floor. Shalwitz & Co. will undoubtedly find that edge, but the script and the current climate work against them. Lists of disaster terminology and lines such as “[Suicide] is something he feels he has to experience” just don’t carry the weight they used to. For most of us, going back out into the night to worry about war and dirty bombs is far more absurd.
When the 22-year-old in a play makes a request for that hot new soundtrack from My Fair Lady, you might think you should have brought along Grandma for translation purposes. And yet a lot of the American Century Theater’s production of The Seven-Year Itch feels more contemporary than The Day Room. Sure, this 1952 comedy, about a married middle-aged New Yorker contemplating adultery while his family’s away for the summer, is creaky in the knees, like any 50-year-old. But most of it could transfer to HBO without much more than a costume update.
Except that Michele Reisch’s period costumes (and the oversexed atmosphere they evoke) are one of the chief pleasures of Itch, reminding us of what halter tops, velvet opera gloves, and tight gold lame could once do to a man. The 40-something Richard Sherman (Christopher Brophy) is alone and bored, bouncing around his Gramercy Park apartment—which is perfectly dressed by designer Eric Grims in full walnut paneling as well as Scotch and ashtrays every 6 inches or so. (You expect Gregory Peck to walk down the stairs any moment.)
Richard’s on the wagon and off the smokes, though, on orders of his wife, Helen (Maura McGinn). And he’s not really alone, either: His fantasies are always intruding from the wings—women he wants, or women he thinks want him, or men who are making passes at his wife, or women he’s worried have told his wife he made a pass at them. Director DeAnna Duncan stages these daydreams of male menopause (one of which involves a feather boa and an eye patch) with verve and a campiness that alone is worth the trip to South Arlington.
Brophy gives Richard a hands-in-pockets insouciance, which starts to erode when he’s almost hit by a falling tomato plant from the terrace above. But this near-death experience becomes a pretext to invite down the Girl upstairs (Amy Quiggins), a young subletter who doesn’t even know how champagne tastes. This could turn into a Hugh Hefner scenario, except that the Girl is utterly self-possessed and Sherman so rusty that he has to lean against the baby grand to steady himself. Just as they’re starting to have a nice time, he makes a clumsy pass, which she’s a good sport about as she heads for the door. (Don’t worry—he gets a second chance.)
Brophy nicely inhabits Richard the Manhattan publishing man, but he needs a schosh more energy to move things along, more Cary Grant and less Jack Benny. The rest of the cast sparkles, especially McGinn as the unflappable Helen; John C. Bailey as Tom, her plummy and smarmy admirer; and all of Richard’s would-be harem, led by the lubricious Sheila Cutchlow as Miss Morris the secretary. Quiggins plays the Girl as the epitome of youthful, clear-headed optimism. She provides a perfect foil for Brophy: Without her in the room, he could pass for still young, but when he watches her take off her shoes, he looks like her grandfather.
I prefer the Billy Wilder movie of Itch, not just for the breeze in Marilyn Monroe’s skirt but for the cheerful way it depicts unrequited lust, not repressed sexuality, as the grand engine of the American ’50s. (Take that, Todd Haynes.) The play is clumsy in comparison, especially in the way it tries to integrate psychiatric notions of repression; but it has the advantage of a mature, almost feminist kind of consummation between the Girl and Richard—at her instigation, on her terms. You think it’s going to end with a chaste embrace like an Eric Rohmer film, but then Quiggins is walking down the stairs connecting the two apartments, carrying the hammer she’s used to remove the floorboarding that formerly separated them. That happy moment, plus Brian Mac Ian’s great sound design, with smart songs by Chet Baker, Bobby Darin, and Dinah Shore, will make you think that the ’50s were very modern indeed. CP