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Review: UNM theater department does its best with young cast in ‘The Day Room’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Don DeLillo is generally regarded as one of America’s finest novelists, and I can still recall the experience of reading “White Noise” about 20 years ago, laughing out loud at the pompous Professor Jack Gladney, promulgator of “Hitler Studies” – DeLillo’s satirical swipe at the current proliferation of cultural studies departments in the increasingly balkanized post-modern American university.

While DeLillo is an original novelist, his playwriting is derivative, and “The Day Room” – his first produced play – is an unwieldy hybrid of Beckett, Genet, Dürrenmatt, Pirandello, Pinter and Shepard, without unfortunately equaling any of the masters he seeks to emulate.

“The Day Room” is currently being produced by the University of New Mexico Department of Theatre and Dance, and director Dodie Montgomery – whose production of “Big Love” at Tricklock last year was so extraordinary – has done her best with the young cast, but is still unable to extract gold where it doesn’t exist. Any one of the playwrights mentioned above could have furnished a better play.

Act one of “The Day Room” takes place in a hospital room, or so we are initially led to believe. But in fact nothing is quite what is it seems in this mad world of shifting identities and games played to stave off the fear of death.

One after another nurse and doctor enter the hospital room, only to be disclosed a little later as imposters. Who can you trust? What is real? Which seems to be the cause of Wyatt’s paralyzing fear – if he can’t trust the professionals in their white coats, where can he put his faith? A hospital is meant to inspire trust, he says, like the staff on an airplane, but everything is falling apart.

In one of the best speeches of the play, Nurse Walker (nicely played by Somah Haaland), tells the patients that her uniform bestows authority on her to determine fact from fiction.

As we all know, we are currently living through a crisis of authority, and in an interview DeLillo says that the writer “must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state. … I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.” But the nurse has no real power; she is a fraud. Power in the post-modern world is occulted and difficult to discern.

The action shifts in act two to a roadside motel room, and the actor playing Wyatt, William Dole, is now a TV, that social engineering device that has dominated our world for the past 60 years. In the same interview DeLillo says the writer must oppose the “whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments.”

The characters voraciously consume the blather issuing from the TV, flipping from channel to channel in a fruitless attempt to find some alimentary content, or more likely an effective distraction. “The Day Room” wants to be a force of opposition, I suppose, but is ultimately too incoherent.

If the production doesn’t quite work, I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of DeLillo, for the young thespians, director, and design team all do their best with the material they have to work with.

Akili Gonzales has designed an appropriately austere set, and Montgomery is creative in her employment of actors Barbara Casseb and Rashaad Bond, who create suggestive silhouettes behind a scrim and make the scene changes interesting.

The last performance is at 2 today at the Experimental Theatre at UNM. For tickets call 925-5858 or visit unmtickets.com.

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