A CurtainUp Review
The Designated Mourner
By Les Gutman
The words I quote above are the first we hear in this play, which was written in 1996, staged (and filmed) in London the following year and presented in New York, with the same cast as now (as well as mostly the same creative team), in 2000. In hindsight, it doesn't seem outrageous that I was prompted at this early moment to think of Masha's famous first words in Chekhov's The Seagull -- "I am in mourning for my life." Jack (Wallace Shawn), after all, is dressed in black, and these are not the only parallels to Chekhov that present themselves over the course of the following three hours. But Jack may or may not be in mourning, and The Designated Mourner is no more the natural offspring of Chekhov's play, written almost exactly a century before, than it is of ideas and processes for which we have to go back to the Greeks, and that require that we filter in the influences of Beckett, Camus and, well, Wally Shawn's own life.
It is a remarkable and infuriating play, but it is quite clear that Shawn, the playwright, as well as Jack, the character, would not step away from any contradiction that seems to suggest. Everything that is worthy of admiration in Jack's world also deserves scorn, including one's self. Mourner is a beautifully wrought play, meaningful and often quite funny, especially in Shawn's hands, but it is also prolix and ponderous. In the age of shortened attention spans, it is the Antichrist. Yet for any aspiring "high brows," at whom Jack takes brutal aim, this is (as it was in 2000) as close to a "must-see" as exists. And no matter how much it seeks to perplex and discombobulate its audience, ultimately (and in spite of everything?) its charms win out.
The setting for the play is a time and place that is both unrelentingly bleak and at least somewhat obscure. Eugene Lee has designed it to look not just well-worn but under seige; Dona Granata has supplied the somber costumes, in which hints of dark violet are as close as it gets to colorful; Jennifer Tipton, who is credited as a collaborator in the creation of this piece since its beginning, adds moody yet at times unnerving lighting; and Bruce Odland's sound is both environmental and often menacing.
What it all means is less easily stated. In the first act, we find Jack and his now-estranged wife, Judy (Deborah Eisenberg, who happens to be Shawn's actual wife), mostly sitting in chairs on opposite sides of the stage, in the bedroom of her father, Howard (Larry Pine). They mostly talk to the audience, in the past tense, although paying keen attention to one another. Occasionally, they interact, and less occasionally, Howard -- who spends most of his time in bed reading (poetry, most likely) -- joins in. They are the privileged class, the intelligentsia, in a world in which the underclass -- think of them as the bolsheviks if you wish, or as the "low brows" (as Jack does) or as the "dirt eaters" (as Howard described them) -- is uprooting the established "order" and not without a measure of horrific violence. This in not Russia in the early 20th Century, however; we don't know when or where it is -- it could just as easily be today, and perhaps it is. Ultimately it doesn't matter. What does matter is that this shift (maybe it is a revolution, but maybe not) prompts Jack, our tour guide, in effect, to contemplate the end of the existence of a world in which he wasn't very comfortable in the first place, and to ponder whether it, he or anything else, meant anything anyway. Judy and Howard are there, mostly, as exhibits to illuminate Jack's analysis. After the intermission, Howard and the bed are gone. Jack and Judy sit in their chairs. He continue his self analysis, as Judy sometimes pipes in to chronicle more "mundane" matters.
This is not a show in which one would be advised to hold one's breath waiting for the "action" of the play. One is also going to be disappointed if one expects fully developed portraits of the play's characters. As with the fuzzy setting of the piece, whatever Shawn shows us is essential to bringing us into the "mourning" that Jack has been "designated" to undertake. We get nothing more, except lots and lots of words. This is one of those shows that perhaps can never be separated successfully from its creators, including not only Shawn, the playwright, and his frequent director collaborator, André Gregory, but also the actors and, as noted, the designers. And if nothing else, this is the reason the show warrants its "must see" categorization. Shawn is inimitable, and endlessly as fun as he is fascinating to watch. Eisenberg and Pine fully inhabit their characters, and do so in a way that makes them instantly recognizable as precisely what they unapologetically are. That's what we need from them, and it's what we get.
In the end, this is a show about the imponderables, and yet we leave it with much -- some would say too much -- to ponder. There is no audience participation in The Designated Mourner, yet somehow Shawn has left us with a difficult task of self-examination that seems unavoidable. Still, whereas something Jack said at the beginning of the show caused me to think of Chekhov, something he said toward the end made me think instead of the lyrics of an R.E.M song, and it, naturally, is a seeming contradiction as well: "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."