Of course, he couldn't know this would happen. But Shawn does know that the best artistic endeavors change--and charge--the world anew. And whether or not he was trying to achieve that end, he has achieved it. With this play, he confirms his importance as a ruminative American playwright and eccentric showman. He's brought forth a masterwork that anyone interested in theater today--never mind where theater is going--will likely find unutterably stimulating.
It is also not a play that every theatergoer is likely to see. That's because Shawn, who routinely sidesteps the conventions of commercial drama, has chosen to stage The Designated Mourner for a capacity of 30 ticket-holders per night in an out-of-the-way venue. The setting is a former men's club on a short street in Manhattan's Wall Street district, and getting there is a bit of a trek. Once inside the ghastly, ghostly edifice, the trek continues to a derelict fourth-floor room, furnished with a collection of Salvation Army chairs facing a bed, and pieces of furniture obscured by muslin covers.
After Gregory has overseen the seating--in the area artfully arranged by set designers Eugene Lee and N. Joseph DeTullio--Shawn himself leaves the spot by the entranceway where he had positioned himself to nod at those arriving. Dressed in shabby black clothes that echo the shabbiness of the surroundings, he shuffles onto the playing area. He has a long striped scarf pulled so tightly around his neck that an attempt to tighten it further could result in strangulation. He folds onto a chair, eats some cake crumbs, takes the paper in which the cake was wrapped, makes a cylinder of it, and then lights it. It's an old trick: when there's so little left of the flimsy paper that it seems weightless, it rises into the air as just a wisp of ash.
It's a foreboding metaphor, which Shawn underlines by announcing the play's title as if it were a death knell. And, indeed, it is--as Shawn, portraying a man identified only as Jack, begins explaining to the audience that he is the sole survivor of a rather outré group. He confides that has spent the past however-many years among the intellectual elite of an unspecified society after having married the daughter--identified only as Judy (Deborah Eisenberg)--of a famous poet and essayist--identified only as Howard (Larry Pine). Believing that he was never completely accepted by them, he refers to himself as "a vague hanger-on."
Jack continues describing the recent history of this group, interrupted only occasionally by Judy or Howard. Even less frequently, he converses with one or both of them. Nattering on, he fills in the story of a marriage that has withered and a social order that has come to no happy end. Although the names he brings up are commonplace, it's soon apparent that Jack, his wife, and his father-in-law live in an unnamed country where repressive forces encroach upon--and then eventually do away with--the intelligentsia. And, yes, that includes Judy and Howard. Are they facing extinction in Central or South America? Eastern Europe? Shawn's ominous point seems to be that, even though there is a copy of Frankfurter Allgemeine sitting on an end table, they could be anywhere.