It’s a tossup as to what’s tougher: actually enjoying “The Designated Mourner” or admitting you didn’t enjoy it. Toughest of all, of course, is getting to see the infernal thing. The New York premiere of Wallace Shawn’s play is being presented in an odd-looking building off Wall Street, a former men’s club, in spaces that accommodate an audience of just 30 at each performance. The run is entirely sold out, leaving much of the city’s cultural elite panting for tickets. As a result, the play is unquestionably the snob hit of the season, a phenomenon of some irony considering its ambivalent attitude toward that stratum of society. Beautifully written and at times mesmerizing, often earthily funny and just as frequently ponderously recondite, “The Designated Mourner” is either a work of genius or an ingenious shell game — and quite possibly a little of each.
The play’s 1996 premiere took place at London’s Royal National Theater, in a production directed by David Hare and starring Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser. In that version, Shawn’s text, mostly a series of interlocking monologues, was presented with minimal theatrical fuss. The actors sat behind a long desk for the duration of the play, and the mood was distinctly hieratic: Bob Crowley’s gold-walled set was like a Philippe Starck altar, on which Shawn’s play was presented like a sacred relic. (The production was later filmed.)
To his credit, Shawn has taken the play off the altar for its New York production, and, by taking on the lead role himself, supplies it with a real human pulse. The show is presented in a couple of rooms inside a marvelously atmospheric building that reeks glamorously of desuetude. (In 21st-century Manhattan, what could be more glamorous than unused real estate?) For the first act, the audience sits in a funky assortment of chairs in a softly lit chamber that is eventually revealed to be an antique-filled bedroom populated off and on by Howard (Larry Pine); his daughter Judy (Shawn’s wife, writer Deborah Eisenberg); and Judy’s husband, Jack (Shawn).
Jack’s is the central consciousness in the play, and Shawn’s impish, endearingly nebbishy persona invites us to share this man’s soul in a way that the performance of the chillier Nichols never did. Punctuating his monologues with a high-pitched, nervous giggle, Jack confidentially unfolds the story of his troubled marriage to Judy, and to the cultural elite she and her father represent. His voice is inviting, funny, smart but down-to-earth: “You can sum me up in about 10 words: a former student of English literature who — who went downhill from there!”
Moments into the play, Jack casually refers to the cultural divide between the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow,” and as he cheerily continues his talk, it’s clear that his uncertainty about his own status in the intellectual hierarchy fueled a seething, deep-seated resentment that will eventually have grave consequences.
His bitterness is primarily directed at Howard, whose intellectual acumen Jack finds admirable and annoying. “I envied him simply because of the way he could read,” he says. “I mean, I was clever enough to know that John Donne was offering something that was awfully enjoyable — I just wasn’t clever enough to actually enjoy it.”
It’s not the first or last time the audience is seduced to line up alongside or against Jack. Do you chuckle at that line sympathetically or superciliously? Do you enjoy reading Donne? Of course you do — or rather you did in college, or you would if you had time to read him, wouldn’t you? Or can you admit that like the increasingly cranky and alienated Jack, you also are more often seduced by the blank face at the foot of the bed, the TV screen filled with all those soothing presences. Are you quite so sure of your intellectual credentials or do you admit those easy phrases — “Loved the new McEwan, didn’t you?” — are part pose, part “arpeggios of self-approbation,” as Shawn’s Jack beautifully puts it?
Is Shawn accusing his audience of these pretenses or congratulating them on their authentic appreciation of the finer things — like this play, for instance? And are the play’s many obscurities and odd digressions meant to mystify and provoke us into reacting against it, the way Jack reacts against Howard, and pay the moral price he does? Or are they evidence that there’s less to Shawn’s play than meets the ear?
It’s hard to tell and it is part of the play’s unsettling fascination. The alternatives to Jack are Judy and Howard, and this pair, as written by Shawn and enacted by Eisenberg and Pine, don’t bring much to the party, even if we must grant them their noble superiority, and eventually, the pathos of their martyrdom.
Eisenberg is cannily cast as Judy. To begin with, her status as Shawn’s wife unnervingly disarms the criticism that Judy and Jack’s relationship hardly seems a plausible one. In repose, Eisenberg’s face is a mask of mournful beauty, and her voice, slipping out through an angular jaw permanently clenched in hauteur, is unmistakably one you’ve heard pontificating endlessly at art galleries, richly knowing and unassailably educated.
It is Judy who first mentions the play’s second cultural divide, between the iron fist of the ruling elite and the “dirt-eaters,” as Howard once called them, the oppressed masses whose tortured presence is invoked mysteriously throughout the play. “The Designated Mourner” takes place in an unnamed city, a vague landscape that’s recognizably our world and also a totalitarian state. In this nightmare near-future, Howard is suspect for having once expressed sympathy for the underclasses in a juvenile essay, even though he soon gave up prose for the more rarefied form of poetry.
Although it’s natural enough to see Howard and Judy as victims persecuted by a philistine regime — for the second act, we move to a chilly, prison cell-like chamber, and more uncomfortable chairs — it’s also hard to warm to Eisenberg’s natural froideur or Pine’s elegant disdain. And their sympathy with the oppressed is a matter of attitude rather than action: They hobnob with the corrupt rulers (Howard’s father was one of their cronies) and they “go quietly” when the time comes.
The play’s vision is unremittingly bleak, even if it is sometimes maddeningly blurry. The sophisticated class has its heart in the right place, Shawn seems to suggest, but its sympathetic clucking avails little against the forces of power; in its apolitical aestheticism, it may be just as complicit in its destruction as the antagonistic Jack, who descends into a rut of self-gratification, abandoning Judy and gleefully giving himself up to his baser instincts. People are compared to rodents more than once in “The Designated Mourner,” and it’s hard to dispute the comparison on the evidence of this trio.
Endlessly thought-provoking, “The Designated Mourner” is also, unfortunately, just plain provoking. Moments of wit and insight alternate with portentous or off-the-wall digressions, and its elaborate language sometimes obscures more than it elucidates. At almost three hours, it threatens to become an intellectual endurance test (“I’m edified … I’m edified … I’m still edified…. I think I’m edified … I’m bored!”).
But the production, staged by Andre Gregory with the essential help of lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, certainly is a novel theatrical event. Its intimacy collaborates with Shawn’s writing to take us so deep inside the character of Jack — he shares with us all sorts of intimate details and clever observations — that we recoil with added horror at his moral coarsening and can’t help but feel the finger pointed at us.
And the play’s ending is breathtaking. Jack has become the “designated mourner,” and what he’s mourning is the death of high culture, the passing of the poetry of Donne and those who loved it. But the play’s last lines are more celebratory than sad: “So much remains,” Jack says, marveling at the feel of an evening breeze, a physical experience whose pleasure cannot be captured by the greatest poet or destroyed by the greatest holocaust — an observation both beautiful and chilling.