The Designated Mourner

Everything connected with Wallace Shawn’s hypnotic play The Designated Mourner inspires a certain awe–even aspects over which neither he nor his director, Andre Gregory, would seem to have control. For instance, how could Shawn possibly foresee that at the end of a recent Wednesday-night performance his audience would be disgorged into a mass of tuxedoed-and-gowned revelers who seemed to symbolize the mindless, jubilant throng about which his drama had just raised profound fears?

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.


As it happens, Jack is spared Howard’s and Judy’s fate for reasons that become increasingly disturbing the more he talks. Jack is an anti-intellectual enjoying a satisfaction for which the term schadenfreude is too polite. Over the course of the play’s two acts, Jack disintegrates from someone expressing mild dismay over not comprehending John Donne to a lout reporting that “I put a book of poetry in the bathtub, and I urinated on it. An interesting experiment. Then I left it in the tub, and then later, when I needed to shit–I hadn’t planned this, it just came to me as an idea–instead of shitting into the toilet, I shat on the book.”

Though Shawn has subtly woven the themes of insensitivity and dehumanization through his piece, his meaning is obvious. (After an intermission, during which refreshments are laid out on a table, the play resumes in a run-down squash court on a yet-higher floor.) The anxious playwright is in despair about the direction in which civilization is heading. Howard–arrogant and self-involved–and Judy–depressed from the get-go–are partly responsible for the downward trend, but Jack is more so. Despite protestations to the contrary, he’s not an ignorant man; he sees the failings of Howard and Judy with a basilisk eye. Rather, he’s merely pampered and aimless, and too morally undernourished to do anything about it. The fact that he remains triumphantly free, after Howard and Judy have perished as a result of their beliefs, is the nitty gritty of this contemporary tragedy.

And the manner in which Shawn and Gregory have chosen to present The Designated Mourner only strengthens the author’s contentions. That only 30 people a night are ushered in to hear the dire message heightens the impression that only the remnants of a compassionate society remain to huddle together for the purpose of sharing living samizdat. It’s as if the longtime collaborators are saying, “What you’re about to see is closer to taking place than you think. Indeed, it will probably come to pass the moment you folks are no longer around to care.”

This approach is consistent with how Shawn–often in tandem with Gregory–has offered his work in the past. When the play was mounted four years ago at London’s Royal National Theatre in the tiny Cottesloe, the auditorium capacity was 125. Since it ran for only a few weeks, no more than a few thousand patrons were able to see Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, and David de Keyser as Jack, Judy, and Howard. Also, Shawn first performed his one-man play The Fever for invited guests in homes and hotel rooms before playing to somewhat larger audiences in a variety of confined venues. Ditto the Uncle Vanya that he and Gregory concocted.


What’s particularly interesting about Shawn’s modus operandi is that it can be interpreted in a couple of ways. He surely intends to suggest that theater matters–and for those to whom it does matter, its relative inaccessibility shouldn’t be a deterrent. There is a significant drawback to Shawn’s method, however. Because he limits his audience–as Jerzy Grotowsky also regularly did–it can also seem as if he’s saying, “I’m playing this only for you, because you’re committed enough, intelligent enough, savvy enough, elite enough to get it.” Rather than firing up his audience, he runs the risk of flattering them. After a brief chat with the playwright and director, who stick around for just that purpose, coddled audience members could easily leave feeling threatened, but also counted among the privileged cognoscenti.

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.

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