Review - Wallace Shawn's 'The Designated Mourner' Intrigues at The Public
Perhaps Wallace Shawn's most effective tool as a subversive playwright/performer of wordy social commentaries is that he's just so darn adorable. Those who only know him from his comical turn in The Princess Bride and his numerous sitcom guest spots may be surprised to know that the eccentric manners he's known for - the squeaking, nasal voice and the scrunched-up puppy dog facial expressions - are the same he uses to talk of such highbrow subjects as anti-intellectualism and artistic genocide.
"Highbrow" is the key word for his three character piece, The Designated Mourner, getting a sumptuously moody production at The Public, reuniting the play's 2000 original New York cast and director. As Shawn explains, playing the title character, a highbrow is a person who would save the Rembrandt from the burning building instead of the baby.
Director Andre Gregory (certainly a modern highbrow's darling) not only greets patrons as they enter the theatre, but actually engages them in real conversation that goes beyond fans fawning, "My Dinner With Andre changed my life." Shawn, who played "My" in that notable film, does the same when the play concludes.
When the two collaborated on the piece thirteen years ago it was performed in a former men's club on a hidden-away side street in the Wall Street area for only thirty viewers per performance, no doubt creating a secretive, elitist feel to the proceedings. Expanded now to a 99-seater, those personal chats help diminish theatre conventions, as does the lack of a curtain call and the appearance of a technician applying a body mic to Shawn before the play begins.
The story is set in an unnamed country after a period when a totalitarian takeover has systematically eliminated those considered to be dangerous intellectuals and cultural elitists. Before that revolution, Jack (Shawn), a self-proclaimed lowbrow, married Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), the daughter of acclaimed poet, Howard (Larry Pine), but he is now the sole survivor of the circle of friends and acquaintances acquired through that union and as such has designated himself to mourn their demise. His heart may not exactly be in his work.
The bulk of the play has Jack addressing the audience, interrupted at times by the pale, ghostly Judy. Howard primarily appears lounging on an upstage couch, looking content while reading. The three rarely interact with each other.
The lengthy first act of the three-hour play has Jack telling anecdotes and remembrances. Some are simply amusing, like his incredulous reaction to the sexually inexperienced Judy thinking he's a good lover. ("If you like me you should try a man who can actually do this!") Others highlight his disdain for art that gives others pleasure despite his own inability to comprehend it, such as the one about the satisfaction he felt urinating and defecating on a book of John Donne poems. The second act clears up a lot of questions about what exactly was happening during this period.
The fact that Shawn is such an entertaining and funny fellow is part of what makes The Designated Mourner so intriguing. Jack may be the anti-hero of the piece, but he comes off as a likeable everyman who sees himself as unwanted among the educated. But instead of trying to better himself by learning from those who intellectually intimidate him, he chooses to see his simple, less-developed taste as superior. And hence, the dumbing down of a society begins.