The Designated Mourner: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Although thoughtful and provocative, this monologue-driven piece taxes patience.

Wallace Shawn stars in a revival of his landmark 1996 play about a bourgeois society of intellectuals who fall victim to a totalitarian regime.

“The designated mourner. I am the designated mourner. I have to tell you that a very special little world has died, and I am the designated mourner.”

Thus begins Wallace Shawn’s provocative 1996 play being revived at the Public Theater with the same cast it featured upon its little-seen 2000 New York City premiere, including the playwright himself; his partner, and famed short-story writer, Deborah Eisenberg; and veteran character actor Larry Pine. Even the director is the same: Andre Gregory, Shawn’s artistic partner of forty years who was his co-star in Louis Malle’s famed 1981 film My Dinner with Andre.

I say little-seen because the original New York production was performed in an abandoned men’s club in the Wall Street area, before audiences that totaled no more than thirty people a night. Its current incarnation is in the Public’s comparatively palatial 99-seat Shiva Theater space.  

This triptych of interwoven monologues portrays three members of a bourgeois, intellectual class who fall victim to a brutal totalitarian regime in an unnamed society. They are Jack (Shawn), the principal narrator; his wife Judy (Eisenberg) and her father Howard (Pine), an esteemed poet.

It is staged in a fussy, almost non-theatrical style. The performers casually walk onstage while the house lights are still on and sit quietly while a stagehand outfits them with body mikes. The audience sits on chairs covered with white fabric, and the director presides from the front row. At the play’s conclusion, the actors don’t take curtain calls. Instead, Shawn reappears briefly, bids us good night, and sends us on our way.

As the tale unfolds in flashback, it soon becomes clear that Jack is not only the designated mourner but also a canny survivor, one who freely abandons his principles and turns a blind eye to the atrocities surrounding him. He professes to disdain high culture, ironically noting that he is the sole surviving reader of the poet John Donne even though he admittedly can’t understand the sonnets. At one point he describes defecating on a book of Donne’s poetry, just to see what it felt like.

It’s a familiar persona for the actor/playwright, who played a variation of it in Malle’s film. But this is a more insidious version, describing his fondness for pornography and tabloid magazines while subtly sneering at his father-in-law’s pretensions. As his marriage to the highbrow Judy disintegrates, he takes up with a girl who works at a lemonade stand. More disturbingly, he may have had a role in the other characters’ deaths, or at least did nothing to prevent them.

Periodically we hear from Judy, who recounts her side of the story in a pained monotone, and the largely silent Howard, who lounges on a bed in his pajamas, oblivious to the gathering storm.

But despite its chilling aspects, the self-indulgent piece is frustratingly oblique, its multiple themes often hard to discern amidst the torrent of free-associative language. Running nearly three hours, it requires intense concentration and patience that is not wholly rewarded, which unsurprisingly resulted in numerous walk-outs at intermission.

In his trademark deadpan, Shawn occasionally leavens the mood with doses of mordant humor, and his genial, avuncular manner subtly draws us in even as his character’s actions become more and more indefensible. By contrast, the normally excellent Pine barely makes an impression and Eisenberg, looking nearly cadaverous, lacks the acting chops necessary to sustain our interest during her long speeches.

It seems churlish to criticize a play that bursts with ideas and dares to challenge its audience. But there is no escaping the fact that by the time The Designated Mourner finally reaches its conclusion, one is not so much filled with a sense of loss than blessed relief.  

Venue: Public Theater, New York (runs through August 25)

Cast: Wallace Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg, Larry Pine

Playwright: Wallace Shawn

Director: Andre Gregory

Set designer: Eugene Lee

Costume designer: Dona Granata

Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton

Music & sound designer: Bruce Odland

Presented by The Public Theater, Theatre for a New Audience