Wallace Shawn has had a remarkable career, ping-ponging between the highbrow (My Dinner With Andre) and the low (The Princess Bride, Gossip Girl). In his 1996 play The Designated Mourner, running through Aug. 25 at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, Shawn addresses that dichotomy with fascinating directness. (And leaves no doubt that he prefers his brows to be beaten as high as possible.)
Set in an unnamed country on the brink of a revolution that turns on its intellectual elite, Shawn’s three-hour play consists of interlocking monologues by three figures threatened by the changes afoot. The principal figure is Jack (played by Shawn himself with his distinctively exasperated nasal whine), a nominal writer who both envies and resents the better-read, better-bred family into which he has married. His wife, Judy (played by the acclaimed short story writer Deborah Eisenberg), is the daughter of an acclaimed poet named Howard (The Royal Tenenbaums‘ Larry Pine). ”I envied him because of the way he could read,” says Jack of his father-in-law. ”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.”
You may find yourself chuckling in recognition at Jack’s prickly aphoristic speeches, which seem even more relevant today. After all, we live in a Kardashian-saturated time in which some of the great cultural landmarks like Donne have become mere signifiers, to be commodified on T-shirts or ”liked” on Facebook rather than fully consumed and unpacked and debated on their own merits.
But Jack is no soapbox populist, and the stakes of his arguments and riffs climb as we learn that revolutionaries have come to attack the elites — a movement that Jack manages to sidestep and in which he may have some complicity.
Under the stately direction of longtime Shawn collaborator André Gregory, who directed a sold-out 1990 Off Broadway production with this same cast, The Designated Mourner progresses with sharp understatement. There is minimal stage business; the most dramatic act may be the lighting of a match to burn a tube of paper, which mesmerizes precisely because of the sparseness of the rest of the production. Among the first-rate cast PEN/Faulkner winner Eisenberg is a revelation. She speaks with the crisp, clipped cadences of a lit professor, but it’s her eyes, sunken and raccoonlike, that will haunt you. She can deliver withering sidelong glares at ever-more-estranged husband, Jack, but reveals hidden depths when rebels are outside her door and she wonders plaintively: ”Would they ring the bell like the milkman used to do?”
In the end, Jack looks back on the passing of an era and a class that he once scorned. ”Everyone on Earth who could read John Donne was now dead,” he reveals matter-of-factly. Worse, he alone recognizes the magnitude of that loss. But thanks to Shawn’s absorbing and decidedly highbrow allegory, we too can bear witness to this tragedy. A-
(Tickets: publictheater.org or 212-967-7555)