Of all contemporary American playwrights, Wallace Shawn does it his way. He will eschew dramatic action for the in-your-face monologue. Inherent theatrical conflict is rendered in fragrant, starkly apt images conveyed in aubergine prose. The characters tell their stories, always tell stories, directly to us until another character breaks in to clarify or change the subject. Base human instinct is front and center. He confronts us, disconcerts our perceptions, slaps us gently to make sure we're still with him, then spins us around again in disorientation. We're not always sure where we are or where he's taking us, but the journey is unlike any other. Shawn provokes and teases, sometimes he'll blabber and over-correct, but he always leads us back somehow. It's rarefied theater, decocted into an essence of mood. It's stream-of-consciousness with a vengeance.
In our current political climate – Twitter ascendant, snowflakes, safe spaces, “How did this happen?” – what better primer than his Designated Mourner (1996), revived magnificently by Catastrophic. Wry and bleak, the play will not make you feel any better about the state of the union; in fact, it may leave you even sadder, but you will leave knowing that the state of avant garde theater is very much alive and in very fine hands. I admit that may be scant compensation, but it beats a one-way ticket to Montreal.
In the intimate Matchbox 1 Theater, there is a long covered table upon which are three glasses, some books, a pitcher of water. It is here where the play occurs and where we meet the three characters, who will not move from their chairs. They talk directly to us, occasionally to each other when things get heated, but mostly they talk to us. It could be the setting for a Congressional committee hearing, a tribunal interrogation, a collegiate panel discussion. It could be all three. We may be in the past, the present or the soon-to-be. It is a place of remembrance, recrimination, envy and muddle.
There is Jack (Greg Dean), a blustery Everyman, a bit nervous and too much “Hail fellow, well met.” Next to him in the middle, Judy (Patricia Duran), sleek in her white blouse and tailored jeans, pretty and proper. At the other end, old stoic Howard (Paul Menzel), Judy's father, weighed as if gravity would pull down his furled face farther than it already has. They are the highbrows, the elite, the chosen. They read Donne and listen to Schubert quartets, although Jack soon confesses that he never understood Donne, and will soon take to porn and TV for his sustenance. He's the poseur among them, wanting to be like them but contemptuous of them. He is, he tells us right from the opening, their “designated mourner,” mourning for a very special way of life that died.
In bits and pieces, although the monologues are lengthy, we gradually learn that wherever we are is in the throes of revolution and disorder. A new, vicious government has arisen, squelching dissent, and is being opposed by the “dirt eaters,” in Howard's phrase. He means this kindly, for the old smug poet, who never leaves his house, is in sympathy with the rebels although he does nothing about the ensuing chaos that is escalating exponentially. None of them do anything about it. They talk of dinner parties, chit-chat, they attend the theater, they remember failed affairs, they gossip about their friends, but there is doom outside and a paralyzing complacency inside.
You wouldn't want to be stuck next to any of them at a party, for they're insufferably self-absorbed. The cost of their highbrow-ness is their soul, or what's left of it, the “bric-a-brac” of the self, as Jack says in a moment of clarity when prison and assassination squads have decimated the intellectuals. He survives the tumult, but he's as dead as Judy and Howard and all their friends. He finds solace, of sorts, from sitting in the park in the evening breeze under the rosy filtered light. "The rememberers were gone, except for me, and I was forgetting."
Sly old playwright that he has always been (Aunt Dan and Lemon; Marie and Bruce; My Dinner with Andre; his latest, Evening at the Talk House), Shawn doesn't lay out what he's thinking; he leaves that up to us. Great themes are braided throughout Mourner, some weightier than others, some a bit too heavy for its own good – two hours of lacerating self-reflection can seem like three hours – but his language mesmerizes throughout and his stories are never less than intriguing with their skewed logic, non sequitur leaps and nuggets of sensitive poetry. He can be as earthy as Chaucer, as elevating as Dante, as obtuse as Wallace Stevens.
Director Jason Nodler, who has a beatific fondness for this play, stages it with exquisite lightness; one might say he plays it like Schubert. It is all of a piece, intertwined with lighting designer Dustin Tannahill's pastel harshness and sound designer Chris Bakos’s subtle soundscape. Dean, reprising the role of Jack from Catastrophic's 2010 production, has an obsequious charm that suits the “rat.” He's both hearty and off-putting, a sensitive blowhard, proud and low at the same time. Whether his plush black mustache, which doesn't match his grizzled hair, is a conscious choice – and knowing Nodler's precise attention to detail, I have no reason not to doubt it – it gives him the comic look of someone who really can't see himself. He survives the swirling tempest by embracing physical pleasure, existing moment by moment. Who is the man in the mirror?
If Jack is basic instinct, then Judy is cool reason, the Hitchcock blond of hidden banked fires. Perceptive to a fault, she, too, has no outlet for action. In a stunning monologue in the second act, she describes the roundup of family and friends by the regime in clinical detail, one precise fact after another, but it's cold, without heart. Remorseless, Duran plays this brilliantly. When Jack describes Judy walking around the house bare-breasted in front of her father, an imperceptible little smirk infuses her face. There are forbidden hints all about her.
But it's Menzel as Howard (another reprise from 2010) who adds another dimension to this rebus of a play. He hardly moves, except for his clasping hands, but we can never quite keep our eyes off his rumpled face. As if sitting in the Pantheon, this useless Jove dispenses his witty pronouncements as if there's nobody to hear them. He knows, unlike the others, that he's doomed. I read Donne, I once loved a poor rebel girl, I wrote poetry in her defense. What's the use, says his weathered visage. After the intermission, his chair is empty. We sorely miss him.
Rich and thick, somewhat lumpy, Designated Mourner is hard-plowing and not to everyone's taste. There are enough themes to keep you thinking long after the night is through. How you respond to our society's swift changes, political and personal, is Shawn's open-ended challenge in this intriguing, open-ended puzzle. In Shawn's worldview, it's not the meek who shall inherit the earth, it's the rats.
Performances of Designated Mourner continue through January 15 at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays 2:30 p.m. January 8 and 7 p.m. January 15 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com or matchouston.org. Pay what you can; suggested price is $35.
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