- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

Why watch a TV set when you can watch Rob Leo Roy act like a TV set? Mr. Roy is far more entertaining than anything on network and cable as he sits in a straitjacket in a wheelchair, channel-surfing with a jerk of his head.
With every jerk and "click" from his mouth, Mr. Roy impersonates a tele-evangelist, an infomercial, various talk shows, historic documentaries and other boob tube fare.
He is mesmerizing and hilarious, one of the best things about "The Day Room," Don DeLillo's 1986 play about language and reality that, under the savvy direction of Howard Shalwitz, is given a sharp and mind-bending production at Woolly Mammoth.
"The Day Room" was a hit for Woolly in 1989, and three of the original cast members Grover Gardner, Jennifer Mendenhall and Mr. Roy return to re-create some of the old magic. They also conjure some new bizarre enchantment, thanks to some new blood and a tight, crisp staging that never lets the absurdity run amok.
Mr. DeLillo is perhaps better known as a novelist the writer of such paranoid masterpieces as "White Noise," "Libra" and "Underworld" but he also has tried his hand at theater, particularly the mind games sort of plays that remind you of Luigi Pirandello or Samuel Beckett.
If "The Day Room" had a subtitle, it would be "Things Are Not What They Seem." The first act takes place in a semiprivate hospital room, where one man, Wyatt (Mr. Roy), is in for a series of routine tests; and the other, Budge (Mr. Gardner), is back in for an undisclosed ailment.
Budge, who passes the time doing tai chi in Chinese robes, is a lover of language. He has scoured the world in search of good conversation, achieving chatterbox nirvana in a Middle Eastern cafe with a dirt floor. He recounts this and other tales of gum flapping in Faulkneresque meanderings to Wyatt, a man of few words who is deathly afraid of small talk because he gets nervous he might say the wrong thing.
Budge believes that voices keep us company and that talk is essential for survival. While trying to engage Wyatt in conversation, various doctors and nurses drift in and out, as well as escapees from the psychiatric wing (the various roles are played by Miss Mendenhall, Doug Brown, Mando Alvarado and Bethany Hoffman). One of the funniest and most disturbing is Grass (Michael Russotto), a clown-pale fellow hooked up to a mass of IVs in traffic light colors. "I have Dutch Elm Disease," he rasps, before taking a seat and chattering away.
Both Budge and Wyatt and the audience must figure out who are the medical personnel and who are the loonies, a process that gets more convoluted when Wyatt's physician, Dr. Bazelon (John Dow) turns up and is immediately carted away by the psych nurse (Denise Hart). "Wait a minute, I play golf with that guy," Wyatt thunders.
If the first act was a conundrum, the second act turns everything inside out, upside down and out the window. Mr. Roy has become the aforementioned living TV set, for starters.
Mr. Brown and Miss Mendenhall play a couple obsessed with catching a performance from a wildly elusive theater company, the Arno Klein troupe, which, coincidentally, is the same name as the hospital's psychiatric wing. They have traveled all over the world, always just missing another life-altering performance. But now they wait in an anonymous hotel room for the mysterious Manville (Mr. Dow) to take them to see what they have been missing.
What is real and what is insanity? Who are the crazies and who are the actors? Are we in a psych ward, a motel room or in the mind of the playwright? But it is perhaps best unless you want to wind up in a padded room not to overanalyze what in tarnation is happening in "The Day Room." Just let the madness and the weirdness wash over you like a kooky bath, reveling in the fine performances by Miss Mendenhall, Mr. Gardner, Miss Hart (in a rich comic turn in the second act as Jolene, a vividly "dramatic" member of the Arno Klein troupe) and Mr. Brown.
The play is a puzzlement and maybe a bit precious as Mr. DeLillo explores the boundaries of language and our absurd predilection for trying to escape from ourselves through role-playing and pretending but Woolly Mammoth's production is zany and smart, a good combination when dealing with a play designed to mess with your head.

***
WHAT: "The Day Room"
WHEN: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., through Jan. 12
WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company at the AFI Theatre, Kennedy Center
TICKETS: $25-$48
PHONE: 202/467-4600
MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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