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Curse of the Cultured Class 

William Shawn's The Designated Mourner is well-written but less than well-felt

Wednesday, Oct 6 2004
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The trouble with Wallace Shawn is that he was born to write prose. The actor and playwright son of the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn has good prose in his system, and he never hesitates to use it in his plays. The thing about magazine-style prose, of course, is that it's only one way of thinking, and if it dominates your brain, it can drive you and your friends raving mad. The Designated Mourner has a lead character who talks, and talks, and talks -- in expository sentences, about repression, poetry, and the fate of the cultured class -- until he begins to lose his mind.

Jack, played manically well here by Matt Leshinskie, sits in a hotel room after a brutal revolution in some unspecified country. The underprivileged have risen up and executed everyone who reads John Donne. This elite group included Jack's wife and irritating father-in-law, Howard, a poet who returns in flashbacks whenever Jack needs to chat with him. (His wife, Judy, comes on, too, but the play revolves around Howard's untimely end.) Soon we realize that Jack is still alive for a pretty good reason: He's a philistine. The more he disintegrates onstage -- and his slow disintegration is the only real action in the play -- the more prone he becomes to saying offensive things like: "I put a book of poetry in the bathtub, and I urinated on it. An interesting experiment. Then I left it in the tub, and then later, when I needed to shit -- I hadn't planned this, it just came to me as an idea -- instead of shitting into the toilet, I shat on the book."

Jack, though, is the show's most likable and rounded character. Judy seems underdeveloped, and the whole point of Howard is that he's a pompous ass, dressed in a maroon silk robe and pajamas. Wallace Shawn has played the Jack role himself in New York. Jack's a bit like Shawn's poky autobiographical character in the movie My Dinner With Andre -- the comic schlub opposite the ethereal cultured snob -- except that the cultured types in Mourner have all been shot, and Jack feels more than a smallish dose of schadenfreude.

Jack mentions certain primitive tribes that assign a single boy to mourn their dead and declares himself the "designated mourner" for the dying breed of Donne readers. No one in the audience is likely to take comfort in this idea, because if Jack is the best this tribe can do, well, maybe its time is really up.

In London and New York, The Designated Mourner played to drawing-room crowds; in fact Shawn likes to stage his plays in Manhattan for a tiny circle of friends, maybe to emphasize his points about privilege. Last Planet Theatre performs this production to a smallish crowd of under a hundred on its fancy new stage in the Tenderloin. The effect is perfect: Outside, on Turk Street, junkies and drunks wander the sidewalk; inside, in a converted ballroom, a handful of theatergoers listen to Shawn all but scream at them about their intellectual vanity and their leisure to watch a play.

The acting here isn't uniform. Sometimes Leshinskie does tour-de-force work, sometimes he line-reads. He plays Jack with so much snideness that some of the prosier lines come out with no personal feeling or shape; they sound like anxious typing. Heidi Wolff is funny and appropriately nervous as Judy, but her role doesn't travel far. Charlie Reaves as Howard is just irritating. More depth in all the acting would relieve the play's major flaw, which is the buzzing monotone of a neurotic man talking for two hours about his own neuroses. But Last Planet, as a rule, does well with Shawn. The troupe started five years ago with a "Wallace Shawn Festival" in Berkeley, which Shawn himself came to see. The actors have a fine feel for his anger and long fits of anxiety -- the arguments between Jack and Judy here remind me of Shawn's harrowing portrait of a New York marriage, Marie and Bruce -- but director John Wilkins can't always elicit the subtler shadings that make Shawn's talkfests human, much less palatable.

Prose is a critical tool: It's a way to think in a straight line. The curse of the cultured class is that literary habits of thought can also block other ways of thinking and feeling; they can raise irony and self-consciousness to a painful pitch. Wallace Shawn plays live in that part of the mind. They're nightmares of angst and rational self-contradiction. What they lack is a deep keel of sensibility -- the sort of emotional knowingness you expect from Athol Fugard or Saul Bellow -- but as "bombs thrown on the central nervous system of liberal pieties," which is what director Wilkins calls them in his program notes, they still work a tonic destruction.

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