Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner, showing at REDCAT through May 21st, is an existential drama that unfolds in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, at an unspecified time.
Under the minimalist direction of André Gregory, a cast of three tells the story of that land’s descent into authoritarianism as filtered though their personal lives, primarily as a series of interlocking monologues. The spare staging and lack of temporal specificity have the effect of making the play feel timeless and yet very much of the present moment.
The main protagonist is Jack (Shawn), the Mourner of the title. He describes the time he spent with his wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), and her father Howard (Larry Pine), and, eventually, how he abandons and lives beyond them. Judy and Howard make their observations, but Jack gets the first and last word. Philosophical, political, and aesthetic differences are aired, and it is the aesthetic nature of Shawn’s dystopia that distinguishes it from so many of the visions that have proliferated our consciousness in the last few years. The political consequences of the rise totalitarian government are of course ugly and brutal, but he shows its fatal impact to high art and literature as well.
This must all sound very dry, but the play is often quite sharply humorous. Shawn shows his excellent comic timing, delivering devastatingly funny lines as the proudly crass Jack–some at the expense of the more cultured Howard and Judy, some at his own. His narrative voice carries most of the play, with Judy and Howard given occasional space to share their experiences and views as a supplement and, at times, corrective to the not altogether reliable Jack.
The play was first written and performed in 1996. Nationally, this was the Clinton era and a relatively open time as compared to the days of Reagan, but surely some of the inspiration for it lie in the philistinism of Rudy Giuliani’s New York. Certainly it has taken on new resonance in an America that has lived not only through 9/11 and the War on Terror, but is going through the particular convulsions of the Trump administration.
Of course, the themes and approach of The Designated Mourner are older than that. The form of the play recalls Beckett, the political and philosophical concerns are reminiscent of Anouhil, and its family dynamics will be familiar to anyone who knows Pinter or Freud; which is to say, Shawn is treading the ground that playwrights have since Sophocles. Such ideas will always be resonant within the culture as long as audiences are around to notice.
The Designated Mourner runs at REDCAT in the Walt Disney Hall Complex through Sunday, May 21st. Monday May 15th is dark. All performances are at 8 pm except for Sundays May 14th and 21st at 3pm. Prices vary from $25-55. For more information call 213-237-2800 or visit www.redcat.org.