“I have to tell you that a very special little world has died, and I am the designated mourner. Oh yes, you see, it’s an important custom in many groups and tribes. Someone is assigned to grieve, to wail, and light the public ritual fire. Someone is assigned when there’s no one else.” — Jack (Wallace Shawn)
So begins THE DESIGNATED MOURNER (directed by André Gregory), a droll satire written and played by Shawn as an extended, Buñuelesque retelling of an adventure, an interval, that Shawn’s character has somehow survived.
When first produced in London in 1996 (in the middle of the Clinton administration), and in New York City four years later (months before the selection of George W. Bush), the unidentified setting of the play resembled an Eastern European or Latin American country descending into totalitarianism. But as fake news sends entire countries over the brink, one imagines the current revival located somewhere in the vicinity of the District of Columbia.
Judy (played by short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg, mesmerizing) and her father Howard (Larry Fine), disenchanted with the power elite they were born into, live in self-exile in an unprotected neighborhood on the edge of town—Howard writing, Judy reading, a picture of intellectual isolation. Jack (Shawn) is Judy’s husband, a chatty, selfish, very funny non-entity—“a vague hanger-on,” in his words—who was once an active participant in his marriage. But having grown tired of everyone and everything, Jack is content, finally, to sit on a park bench and explain his life away.
Jack is a stand-in for us, the contemporary theater audience, a loose, inept affiliation of alienated over-thinkers, slowly losing grip on every lever of power, watching the distance once afforded by our stage-managed political divisions—this is happening to those people over there—disappear.
“I thought about all the sincere consideration which I gave to the future, to my plans, you know, and all the solemn concern I lavished each day on the events of my past—my “memories,” as we call them, wiping away a few tears—and I wondered: Was all this really tremendously valuable? Or was it perhaps just a bit unnecessary, when you consider the fact—rather often overlooked—that the past and the future don’t actually exist? I sit around thinking about them from morning till night, but, you know, where are they? Where are they?” — Wallace Shawn, THE DESIGNATED MOURNER
THE DESIGNATED MOURNER , through May 21
REDCAT, Disney Hall, downtown Los Angeles
This REDCAT revival of THE DESIGNATED MOURNER reunites the original New York cast and director from 2000. The film version of the London production—with Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, and David de Keyser, and directed by David Hare—was released in 1997.
Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, and Deborah Eisenberg in The Designated Mourner
Image credit: REDCAT