The Designated Mourner
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The Designated Mourner: in brief
Wallace Shawn's unnerving and unforgettable piece returns to New York, 13 years after playing at an abandoned men's club near Wall Street. Three interlaced monologues (performed by the 2000 cast of Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine) tell of an unnamed country's purge of liberal intellectuals. As before, André Gregory directs.
The Designated Mourner: theater review by David Cote
Jack (Shawn) is struggling to describe his father-in-law, Howard (Pine), a poet, aesthete and former essayist. “[W]hat should come first?” Jack muses. “What should be the very first thing that I ought to say? I mean, I really ought to say many different things simultaneously, because, you see, he was so outstanding in so many ways. But that’s not possible. So, what can I do? Oh, what the hell—let’s just calm down.” Although Jack prates through a veil of envy and contempt (the latter quality, ironically, he ascribes to Howard), I feel likewise stymied when it comes to The Designated Mourner. Ever since I read the text in 1996 (when it debuted at London’s National Theatre), then attended (twice) its 2000 American premiere at an abandoned men’s club on Wall Street, Wallace Shawn’s masterwork has remained, for me, one of the most significant dramas of the past 20 years and among my most searing theatergoing experiences. But how to describe it? It’s so many things at once: a tragedy about the extermination of a country’s intellectual class; a satire of those same impotent highbrows; the diary of one man’s psychic devolution; and a ribald dissection of canons of taste. Let’s calm down, for God’s sake.
This revival, coproduced by the Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience, reunites the New York cast of Shawn, Pine and the stunning Deborah Eisenberg, who plays Howard’s daughter and Jack’s wife, Judy. (Fiction readers know Eisenberg as the author of sublime short stories.) Shawn’s longtime collaborator, André Gregory, expands his original staging to fit the Public’s first-floor Shiva Theater. It seems to me there are more entrances and exits than in 2000, as well as more sound and light cues. As you may know, the site-specific premiere of Mourner was performed for lucky audiences of 30 at a time. The seating at the Shiva fits three times that number, but there’s been no loss of intimacy. Eugene Lee’s enveloping set is washed in gray, with exposed wires snaking along walls, old family photos hanging and battered furniture placed in the wings. The actors wear body microphones, but there’s no attempt to hide the wires. Bruce Odland’s snaky, marimba-tinged incidental music (first heard in the 2006 WNYC radio broadcast of the script) adds atmosphere and definition to the elliptical, drifting text.
The sonic and scenic elements are well wrought and evocative, but the emphasis here is on language, on the spectacle of three performers articulating their clashing relations and worldviews. The piece unfolds in three alternating, sometimes apposite, sometimes tangential monologues, spoken (mostly) to the audience or to each other. First is Jack, who glibly and cheerfully describes himself as “a student of English who went downhill from there.” There’s wealthy and brilliant Howard, who has subsumed social criticism (he openly sympathizes with a member of the underclass whom he calls “the dirt eaters”) in high-flown poetry. Judy finds herself torn between a life of privilege and her love of Jack, who comes to reject the finer things and embrace his inner lowbrow hedonist.
The oedipal/cultural tension of Howard’s household is mirrored in the world beyond, which we glimpse in bits. New, younger officials begin to replace older ones in the government. Then there are terrorist attacks, presumably mounted by the “dirt eaters.” Bloody governmental reprisals follow. Finally, of course, intellectuals and dissidents are rounded up and shot—or imprisoned for years, released and then shot. In the second act, Eisenberg delivers Judy’s slow, horrifying account of the night they come for her and Howard.
To label Mourner either a morality tale or a political tirade is useless; diamond-hard in its thinking, it remains slippery and disturbing in its message. Jack is both repugnant and convincing as a common-sense man who reminds us that the world is beautiful, whether or not anyone remembers the poetry of John Donne. In one of his most powerful passages, he realizes that the self is “a pile of bric-a-brac—just everything my life had quite by chance piled up—everything I’d seen or heard or experienced—meticulously, pointlessly piled up and saved, a heap of nothing.” As far as politics, the play doesn’t map to a specific regime; it’s not an allegory for any place. All at once the mass insanity it depicts is Germany in the 1930s, Russia in the 1940s, Chile in the 1970s and America in the past 13 years.
Hold on, you say: There have been no televised executions or mass murders here. Freedom of speech and assembly are alive and well. Say what you will about Bush, the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Obama, kill lists or drones. We are not fascists. Not really. Not yet. And our culture? Are intellectuals an endangered species? Of course not. Not really. Not yet.
As in Shawn’s other great works—The Fever, Aunt Dan and Lemon and his newest, Grasses of a Thousand Colors (coming to the Public this fall)—Mourner exists to implicate and infect. There is no agenda, except to make the spectator aware of her or his position in a society built on genocide, war and oppression. That might sound glibly leftist, but you see a Shawn piece and realize it’s the essential, modern Western condition: trivial comfort at the price of worldwide human misery.
None of this bitter medicine comes at the expense of pure, convulsive pleasure; Mourner is a densely shadowed maze laced with shocks and gags. It’s no irony that this ambiguous elegy for a class of art lovers is itself great art. Shawn’s lusciously textured writing weaves surreal lyricism, cocktail chatter, erotic naughtiness, piles of shockingly original metaphors and rhetorical coups that will temporarily win you over to toxic ideological stances. Not as hidden or hard a ticket as it was in 2000, the play is nevertheless around for a limited run only. Be among the few to boast that you saw it, even if admitting such exclusive privilege feels vaguely dangerous.—Theater review by David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
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