'Designated Mourner' review: Serene and subversive theater
The most unnerving theater in town is being shared, ever so serenely, over three hours by the three characters in Wallace Shawn's "The Designated Mourner."
Andre Gregory, the director and co-honoree in this four-month celebration of the 40-year Shawn/Gregory collaboration, greets us pleasantly as we enter one of the Public Theater's 99-seat spaces, which has been made to feel homey with slipcovers over padded seats.
We are meant to feel comfortable and, gradually, complicitous in the world's cruelty as actors Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine explain, in overlapping anecdotal monologues, the stories of three privileged people in an unnamed authoritarian country.
"Designated Mourner," which starred Mike Nichols as Shawn's character in the 1996 London premiere, played to just 30 people a night when Shawn and this cast did the play in a run-down former Wall Street men's club in 2000. There was a clandestine aura around that limited run, intended to make theatergoers feel very lucky and special indeed to be cultural insiders.
But this revival, which runs through Aug. 25, proves that the deceptively simple, devious and masterly work can have almost as shattering an impact without the illusion that we're at a private party.
And what we lose in personal investment is gained in clarity. The playwright plays Jack, who sits in a rolling arm chair and whispers -- in Shawn's inimitably charming, unsettling way -- that "A very special little world has died, and I am the designated mourner. Someone is assigned when there's no one else."
That little world is represented by his wife, Judy (his real-life companion, Eisenberg, on a straight chair, looking like a woman from Picasso's blue period, except with a cadaver-white face and red around her eyes). Judy is devoted to her father Howard (Pine, in bed), the intellectually charismatic, writer son of the ruling elite.
Howard, Judy and their friends feel deeply for the poor people "who eat dirt," for the rebels and for the poetry of John Donne. Jack, resentful of the highbrows who make him feel lowbrow, lurks on the periphery. As the State drags these people to prison and worse, Judy quietly observes that, when they come for you, it feels "exactly what you always imagined."
What remains is our designated mourner, who has learned how to feel superior as his superiors disappear and how to feel peaceful when he can drink his tea and read his sex magazines and admire nature by learning "just not to think about other things." Shawn, bless his wit and conscience, is thinking for him.
WHAT "The Designated Mourner"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $85; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Serene and subversive theater