Wallace Shawn is a dangerous man. If he confronted you in some darkened alley you might feel more inclined to giggle than cower, but don’t let that roly-poly exterior and slight lisp catch you off guard. His plays describe the seductive power of bad ideas, how even the most seemingly anodyne notion can snowball into something more alarming.
In Shawn’s masterful, exacting The Designated Mourner, a series of interlocking monologues revived at the Public in collaboration with Theatre for a New Audience, a reluctance to read a novel leads our hero, Jack (Shawn), to later defecate on a book. Jack’s envy of his father-in-law’s enjoyment of poetry escalates into a tacit approval of that father-in-law’s execution.
A shrewd and shifty take on the culture wars, the play is an evasive elegy for a lost elite, set in a dystopian city in which “highbrow” pursuits and those who enjoy them face increasing threat. Jack describes himself as “a former student of English literature who went downhill from there.” Attracted to Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), a bourgeois intellectual, he joins her and her father, Howard (Larry Pine), in an uneasy ménage.
At first, Jack seems to enjoy their exalted interests, but for various reasons (jealousy of the father-daughter relationship, sensitivity to the political climate, a vulgarian streak), he eventually rejects their influence in favor of nudie magazines and cheesecake.
“So I made a new life,” Jack explains. “And I was so happy, because it was so easy. I walked down the street with a different step, a sloppier one. I ate in different places, developed different tastes.” This barbarism conveniently spares him from the purges that claim his former lover and her father.
Jack’s speeches appeal to the philistine in most of us—that slightly shameful chunk of self that would rather spend the evening watching cat videos than reading Kierkegaard. And yet the play never quite approves of Jack’s cheerful crudity, his suspicion that the death of everyone “who could read John Donne” just might make the world a better place.
Of course the piece isn’t itself a lowbrow work, even if it does play hide-and-seek with its cultural sympathies. Certainly, Shawn’s themes are themselves snobbish—though his language deflates this high-mindedness. And then there’s the sheer length of the thing. Director André Gregory reunites the same cast members as in the play’s American debut and hasn’t seen fit to trim its three-hour running time. (By contrast, the 1997 film version is just 90 minutes.)
Gregory’s work is achingly precise, but the pacing is so leisurely it sometimes borders on the comatose, and I can’t have been alone in believing the first act might never end and we spectators might all have to start new lives here. Though, now that the Public has a new restaurant, this would be less of a hardship.
But what the play demands it also rewards. Mourner asks penetrating questions about the place of art, taste, loyalty, and love, while offering simpler pleasure in the precision-cut liveliness of its language and that language’s speakers: Shawn’s excitable magnetism, Eisenberg’s low-affect hauteur, Pine’s commanding ease. Shawn is a particular joy. His every line reading seems a surprise, and he’s even better when he drops the script in favor of a bit of banter with latecomers. After all, what’s a funeral without its games?