At the performance I attended, others on hand included actors Jill Clayburgh, Meryl Streep, and Deborah Rush, playwright David Rabe, agent Sam Cohn, and a Parnassus Poetry in Review editor, who must have been especially alarmed by Shawn's vision of what's in store for poetry. It's perfectly credible that this same collection of recognizable names and faces could fetch up at any Manhattan theater on any given night. However, when they and their companions constitute more than one-fifth of the audience--possibly keeping tickets out of the hands of equally intrigued but less well-connected theater-goers--a specter of elitism materializes that's at odds with Shawn's implied worries.
That said to Shawn's detriment, barely enough can be said in praise of him as an actor. Although he is one of the foremost stage interpreters of his plays, when he makes movies, he often lacks craft. (A notable reception is his performance Vanya on 42nd Street, also directed by Gregory.) As Jack, Shawn is flawless. When he first shares his recollections, he's extraordinarily funny--so funny that he catches the audience off-guard, and keeps them there far longer than his confessions would seem to allow. Then when he slowly lets Jack's hatred and self-hatred seep out, he's so overwhelming that it's possible to wonder--unfairly, to be sure--whether what he's accessing are resentments he's harbored about his own accomplished father, the late New Yorker editor William Shawn. Or maybe it's just a vestige of Vanya's disdain of Serebryakov. (For the record, Shawn's Jack is quite different from Mike Nichol's; Nichols, who was also astonishing in the role, turned visibly bitter much earlier, and made of Jack someone far more petty and negligible than Shawn does.)
While Eisenberg and Pine have considerably less to say, they have a good deal of face-time. And Eisenberg's face is something to see: The skin is shrink-wrapped over cheek bones so high they look treacherous, to be climbed at one's peril. Eisenberg skillfully uses an upper drawl to convey Judy's terror and sense of superiority. The only thing missing from her playing is the well-placed stare at the audience. This is a woman for whom confrontation is contact. Having her speak with eyes more often closed than not seems an unexamined choice. Otherwise, Eisenberg, a respected short-story writer and Shawn's partner, adds to her striking list of successes. Pine's Howard is a clever blend of haughty and harassed.
Because The Designated Mourner is almost as much about an alternate slant on doing theater as it is about content, director Gregory adds a few unexpected touches. He watches his work along with everyone else--and is apparently as amused and moved as Meryl Streep looked to be . Well, he deserves to enjoy himself. This evening with Andre and Wally is an occasion.