Wallace Shawn’s 1996 play, The Designated Mourner, is set in an unnamed country on the verge of a revolution that spells doom for its intellectual elite. Shawn portrays the main character, Jack, and Deborah Eisenberg, Shawn’s longtime real-life partner, is Jack’s estranged wife, Judy, whose family is more sophisticated than the one from which Jack sprang. The play, now in a bracing revival directed by Andre Gregory and housed at the Public Theater, also recounts the dissolution of Jack and Judy’s marriage.
The play consists of interlocking monologues between Jack, Judy and her father, Howard, a poet and intellectual, acted by Larry Pine. Howard’s life has long been spared by the country’s powers-that-be in part because they couldn’t grasp his work. Jack is envious of Howard’s reputation, and one of the drama’s strengths is the bitter humour Jack directs toward his father-in-law. “I envied him because of the way he could read,” Jack 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.”
To keep one’s attention focused throughout a rather plot-thin three-hour, two-act evening can be a challenge. Audience members may need time to adjust to the meandering rhythms of Shawn’s prose, especially as it is conveyed mostly in language that can make Beckett seem screwball-speedy. Gregory’s production, which takes place on a stage with only a bed and two chairs, does not contain much physical movement to distract us.
But the clarity of Jack’s retrospective observations eventually begins to take hold, and we are moved by the devastation he comes to feel at the loss of what was once considered sophistication. “Everyone on Earth who could read John Donne was now dead,” he laments.
The play’s intellectual resonance requires its lengthy sit.
If you don’t believe me, try watching the 94-minute movie version, which was based in part on the play’s 1996 premiere production at London’s National Theatre. Starring Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson and directed by David Hare, the movie feels grimly pretentious, whereas the much longer National live performance was marvellous – it remains my favourite of the stage presentations, which also include Gregory and Shawn’s previous revival in 2000. But all versions I’ve seen have managed, by evening’s end, to unsettle the audience.