Theater Review - The Designated Mourner (NY)

“The Designated Mourner” is written bythe wonderfully quirky Wallace Shawn, directed masterfully by André Gregory and designed by Eugene Lee. All three have worked for years to create this inspired piece of theater; unique in its form, it is a truly sensual and spiritual experience. It played originally in the 2000. Here, it is being presented in the tiny 99-seat Susan Shiva Theatre in and by the Public Theatre and further supported by Theatre for a New Audience.


This three hour exploration, which is both political and romantic, asks and tries to answer the questions: What is the self? What kind of relationships makes us happy or causes us to suffer?  How do we relate to people we love? Who is supposed to love us and what does love mean?  Wally Shawn stars as Jack, the designated mourner dressed in black, who begins the show by lighting a coil of paper and watching it burn and float into the air. Jack is the narrator, and Shawn, short and bald, bearing the hint of a lisp, attacks the role with a directness and adorable humor that is marvelous. 


On a large bed center stage lies Howard, played with obvious contempt by Larry Pine.  In brown bathrobe and pajamas, he is reading.  Turns out he is a “highbrow” and snob as Jack describes him. Howard knows everyone and everything and has a group of friends who follow him. He also has a daughter Judy, the estimable, neurasthenic Deborah  Eisenberg, who when she is not acting, wins awards for her short stories.  Jack describes Judy and Howard's relationship as almost incestuous, something he cannot abide. It makes no difference to her.  


Jack is impressed with Howard, but hates him, his posturing and his power. He falls in love with Judy; although he cannot say that word, they marry.  Their life together is always impacted by Howard.  Each of the actors delivers their parts independently, in monologues.  There are people who take over their country- perhaps third world- and cruelly attack Howard, his followers, and finally Judy.  Meanwhile Jack is making an effort to understand himself and establish his own life in sometimes bizarre ways.  Let us just say John Donne and his poetry are mistreated, as Jack becomes a lowbrow!! 


This is all the tip of the iceberg.  Every sentence of this work is interlaced with philosophy, questioning the meaning of life, of death, of the present, the past and the future. There are moments of sadness; moments of comedy.  At times, we cannot hear the words as we would have liked. Shawn is the only one who projects clearly with a joyousness that knows no bounds. “The Designated Mourner” plays through August 25 at the Shiva Theatre ta the Public.  


This fall, Shawn's newest play, “Grasses of a Thousand Colors” will run at the same theater from October 7 through November 10.  

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