“The old officeholders, the filthy herd of swine whom we vaguely knew and would even vaguely nod to at cocktail parties, were quietly replaced by a new herd of swine whom we didn’t know--the new generation, who dressed in new colors--those chalky colors, yellow and pink and various greens--and lived in new neighborhoods, and even ate in new restaurants with new styles of cooking.”In the Public Theater production of The Designated Mourner that closed yesterday, that line in the first act is followed by the far-off buzz of a helicopter, presumably carrying shipments of strange new foodstuffs and/or hunting down the holdouts who still enjoy their haute cuisine. And it was that risible conflation of petty intergenerational animus with the advance of the jackboots, of fashion with fascism, that pretty much gave the game away for me. It’s not that I found nothing to admire this time in a play which, based on its 1997 film version, I once esteemed (and had since perhaps over-idealized). And it’s not that I don’t understand what my far more admiring colleagues glean from this Wallace Shawn monologue-with-extras; I’ve enjoyed reading some back-and-forth about it and have learned from these different points of view, sincerely.
It’s just that in this production, which I confess I struggled mightily to enjoy, I feel like I saw right through the play: its audience-baiting mix of contempt and conviviality; its insistently but seldom convincingly nihilist view of the persistence of the self; the thinly conceived, sci-fi-ish end-of-civilization premise, which once seemed vaguely futuristic and smartly non-specific but now seems just awkward, anachronistic, not-quite-allegorical, neither fish nor fowl; and above all its flimsily veiled reactionary snobbery, which Shawn sneaks by in the guise of his central narrator’s unreliability and ambivalence. Oh, sure, we’re not supposed to take Jack’s demarcation of highbrow and lowbrow, or his bitter envy of one and guiltily un-guilty enjoyment of the other, at face value, because he’s a miserable, untrustworthy prick. And I guess we’re supposed to be appalled by his insufferable aesthete father-in-law’s sympathetic appellation for the poor as “dirt eaters.” (A digression: Because Shawn has played a definitive Vanya, I couldn’t help thinking of his Jack as an homage to that character’s belated midlife crisis, and of Howard, the above-it-all professor, as a kind of Serebyrakov and daughter Judy as an overshadowed-helpmate Sonya figure.)
But the horror of the great, illiterate unwashed, and in particular of their presence within our midst and even in our own selves, feels like the palpable grist of Mourner, whose title refers to a ritual Jack performs to mark the end of Western civilization, more with relief than in grief. It seems to me that a certain liberal/illiberal defensiveness about First World creature comforts and cultural privilege, along with the attendant obliviousness to both the world’s suffering and to deeper levels of meaning, has been a rich subject and stance of much of Shawn’s work, from My Dinner With Andre to The Fever, and that part of what makes these so strong is that as a performer he powerfully embodies those contradictions, with his mole-like physiognomy and his doddering charm masking a sputtering rage (or is it vice versa?), and his barely-offstage upper-class intellectual pedigree.
The Designated Mourner feels to me like an attempt to do something more than another self-flagellating Shawn-ologue--to have us see Jack, his own default id and stand-in, more coldly than ever, as if from outside. Hence the introduction of other voices, though not quite other characters, into what is essentially still a monologue; hence the literal coming-true of the long-dreaded stripping-away of civilization's veneer; hence his own character’s defiant pushback against our identification with him, even at his most vulnerable or joyous. And while I admire the attempt to construct another monologue, and to perform its contradictions with his own unique voice and body, I felt, in this production at least, those ambitions falter. This Mourner was strongest, if not strong enough, when Shawn had the mic; the rest of Andre Gregory’s odd quasi-environmental production only seemed to distract from whatever rapport his actor/playwright established with us, and not in a productively unsettling way, just an unsettled way.
It’s possible that I may change my mind again about Mourner--that a new production coming up in L.A., for instance, with Paul Mackley as Jack (I saw Paul do The Fever effectively many years ago), might give the play a fresh life (in fact, it's tantalizing to imagine the play with a different cast; like, how about Kevin Spacey as Jack?). And I should revisit the movie soon to see how Mike Nichols made this work better; I recall him as both a more roguishly charming and a more disturbing Jack. But I’m afraid, honestly afraid, that I may never recover what I once felt for the play. Indeed, it might be some kind of backhanded tribute to it that I feel I identify with Jack in this sense: I, too, I am mourning something to which I once ascribed more value. And like him, I’m ambivalent about it--I somewhat fear what it may say about me, but there it is.