<i>The Designated Mourner</i>

Larry K. Ho


May 18-22, 8 p.m. 2017

Location Info:

REDCAT: Roy & Edna Disney/CalArts Theater
631 W. Second St.
Los Angeles, CA  90012
Wallace Shawn is a powerhouse storyteller, and the story he spins in The Designated Mourner is a riveting tale. It’s set in an unnamed country with a totalitarian government and a pronounced divide between the haves and the have-nots — the dirt-eaters, as the privileged call them. Jack (Shawn) is an intellectually and spiritually listless man who meets and falls for Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), the daughter of a revered and famous poet. Howard (Larry Pine) Judy’s father, is a member of the intellectual elite — a politically progressive highbrow who (Jack comments sardonically) actually reads the poetry of John Donne and other books like it, as opposed to a lowbrow like himself who only pretends to.

Self-critical and candid, Jack freely owns up to all his shortcomings, including his fondness for TV and pornography, and his lousy lovemaking (which doesn’t preclude the occasional extramarital fling), unremarked upon by his adoring wife. But he saves most of his scorn for Howard and his ilk, and keeps enough distance between himself and them so that when a change of regime arrives and they all go to prison and worse, he, a survivalist “rat,” endures.

Written in 1996, and directed by Andre Gregory, The Designated Mourner intimates the tread of angry mobs, and drops anecdotes about cold-blooded assassins who show up at mealtimes. The play isn’t about politics or revolution (not primarily, anyway) nor are external events really Shawn’s main concern. Instead, the narrative is mostly an exploration of the psyche of one disturbed and unsettled man, a passive observer who takes wry satisfaction in the downfall of others, specifically a bleeding-heart intelligentsia that bears spooky resemblance to folks we may know (or perhaps the audience member in the seat adjacent). If Dostoevsky’s Underground guy had a great-great-grandson, Jack could be him.

As to the production, pretty much all of the power on stage emanates from Shawn. Eisenberg, an accomplished fiction writer and Shawn’s real-life partner, regrettably gives a rather bloodless rendering of Jack’s spouse; Pine’s supposedly charismatic “great” man seems rather faded as well. But Shawn, with his distinctive twang and salt-of-the-earth manner, gives a remarkable performance that hooks you early and keeps you captivated to the end.

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