February 26th. Present (row-by-row from top left) Kevin McMonagle; Colin Ellwood; David Whitworth; John Chancer; Susan Raasay; Sakuntala Ramanee; Simon Usher; Julia Winwood; Valerie Gogan (not pictured)
A wonderful, deadpan subversive souffle of a play. Set in a NY hospital in which the nervous middle-aged and un-talkative Wyatt is newly arrived sharing a private room with the gregarious Budge. Wave upon wave of unexpected visitors from elsewhere in the institution – supposedly doctors, seriously ill patients - turn out to be ‘performing’ or delusional patients from the adjacent psychiatric wing. All this slowly undermine the sense of security – even the sense of underlying reality - of Budge and Wyatt, if indeed Budge and Wyatt are Budge and Wyatt. Act 2 reveals the engine room of the vertiginous deception. Actors playing lunatics, lunatics playing actors, or lunatics playing actors playing lunatics? A play that forensically disassembles apparent reality to reveal acting and its cognate performance form, madness, underneath. Underneath the apparently absurdity a gradually-revealed swiss-watch realist mechanism driving the apparent quantum warpedness. It's also full of vivid and wry characters, and of such characters playing such characters. And for an early 80s piece it impressively manages to be wonderfully evocative of millennial immersive and situationist theatre, while also satirising a certain type of very 21st Century jet-set theatre-festival-groupie, determined to track down the latest elusive hot ticket. DeLillo is clearly even more than a great novelist. On the basis of this and of his later play we read in Holborn last year – Valporiso – he is also a major playwright. As with the novels, this play both celebrates and subverts the artificiality and insubstantiality of modern life. The dialogue has a wonderful deadpan relish. Its ultimate ‘trick’ of deadpan serial and multiple un-maskings, in which each subsequent layer is presented as reality only to be then revealed as just another performance, is oddly reminiscent both in tone and technique of late-stage Ben Johnson, in his The New End for example. In terms of the theatricality and role playing you could also mention Pirandello of course.
So it looks like an absurdist play until you work out the intricacies of the situational mechanism. And then it offers the satisfaction of it all fitting together. In a way it's a bit like Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, where everyone in the anarchist cell turns out to be a 'plant', so the spies are all from the same side and basically spying on each other. But with the Delillo the actors and the medics are all psychiatric patients...or the medics and the patients are all actors in the same troupe. The 'mark' Wyatt turns out to be the maddest of them all, giving in Act 2 his 'performance' as the Robin Williams-esque channel-hopping tv. A single nurse, sneaking in to 'moonlight' in the theatricals in the psychiatric patients' day room, is one genuine refugee from the supposedly 'sane' clinical world. The guy who seems unexpectedly spooked at the end of Act 1 - Budge - turns out to be (or seem to be) troupe leader Arno himself...or has taken that name (the honorary 'name' of the psychiatric ward, as well as the titular head of the theatre company...or both, or neither...). I suspect a performance would work with a kind of slightly ritualised, on-rails deadpan delivery, slightly farce-like...(with Wyatt as the Gene wilder character from The Producers and Budge/Arno as Zero Mostel.....): it's clearly not the first night of the Arno Klein after-dark production in and beyond the dayroom. They are a well-oiled machine, both in their 'doctors and nurses' schtick from Act 1 and their 'grifters' turn in Act 2. I think they do it nightly...a sop to a pretty intense narcissism, perhaps? After all in Act 2 they are fantasising their own elusive 'must see' celebrity status as the Arno Klein troupe....pursued around the world....
A great discovery, and read here with aplomb
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