The Designated Mourner
Reviewed by Terry Morgan
REDCAT at The Roy and Edna Disney/CALARTS Theatre
Through May 21st
Sometimes a play finds its moment long after its premiere and initial exposure to the world. Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, written in 1996, was certainly significant in its time: a film was made of the play only one year after its creation, starring Mike Nichols, no less, and directed by David Hare. However, in the era of Trump, in which a proudly stupid populace voted in a profoundly vulgar president, Shawn’s play about the demise of culture and political resistance feels especially prescient.
In a country not unlike our own, Jack (Wallace Shawn) is married to Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), the daughter of respected poet Howard (Larry Pine). Jack describes Howard as “an apostle of universal love flying through the day on wings of scorn,” and his initial respect for the man quickly devolves into hate. Howard and his artistic clique are targeted by a rising totalitarian government. While Judy is horrified by this, Jack finds that he actually approves, and while others suffer he becomes happier with the new, “lowbrow” reality.
Shawn revels in the irony of his performance – an aesthete playing a man who’d secretly like all aesthetes to disappear. He plays Jack with a casual bonhomie that belies his inner thug, perhaps best typified by the line, “How much longer could I pretend to be hurt and shocked by unspeakable acts?” Whereas in the film, Nichols’ Jack actually seemed to feel bad about the loss of the intelligentsia, Shawn’s Jack borders on the gleeful, which makes the quiet horror that much more cutting. Pine is terrific but unfortunately is given too little to do, whereas Eisenberg plays one note of weary resignation too often.
As director, Andre Gregory unfortunately makes some odd choices that don’t help the show, such as having the house lights on for ninety percent of the time or leaving actors sitting onstage even when they have nothing to do. The pacing is also somnolent – there’s no reason a one hundred and three page play should take three hours. Ultimately, the reason to see this production is Shawn’s terrific performance and to appreciate the unnerving mirror the play holds up to America.
REDCAT, The Roy and Edna Disney/CALARTS Theatre. 621 West Second Street, L.A.; Tues.- Sun. 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; through May 21; 213-237-2800 or www.redcat.org. Running time: 3 hours.