If you get to know "The Designated Mourner" and grow fond of its enigmatic, probing use of words, you might in turn become bored with every other, more inferior play whose characters say exactly what they mean, ask only the obvious questions and exist in worlds whose mysteries lie merely in plot, rather than within individual sentences and ideas. Because this play's three characters approach their monologues sideways, and pleasurably so, every other method can appear stale by comparison.
Wallace Shawn's 1996 play, staged at the Catastrophic Theatre through Jan. 15, floats in a realm of curiosity and heartbreak. Devoid of clichés and predictability, it's a play with none of the machinery of theater, yet it brings forth ideas and images of such primacy you'll chew on them for days, their piquant tastes and textures lingering like cinnamon.
To call "The Designated Mourner" a timely examination of the downfall of sensitivity, intellectualism and human rights at the hand of a fascist government would be accurate enough, as it would be to say that its sense of paranoia is an apt reflection of current times.
'The Designated Mourner'
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 15. The final Sunday performance is at 7 p.m.
Howard, played by Paul Menzel, is the leader of a band of subversive artists who are persecuted by a new regime. The battle between the haves and have-nots has ended in a nation without hope or poetry. The idealists cry out, "How could this have happened?"
Hearing this, Jack (Greg Dean), a failed intellectual who dates Howard's daughter Judy (Patricia Duran) but is kept outside Howard and his followers' orbit, responds with an unsurprised shrug.
But "The Designated Mourner" is also about the way tea tastes, the beauty of a shoulder blade, the uneasy feeling of looking at yourself in the mirror, the paradox of liking poetry and the melancholic satisfaction of remembering the dead.
It's about asking questions such as, "Is human motivation very complex, or very basic?" and, "Are you the same person as the one yesterday or someone entirely different?" with the same narrative urgency as an Agatha Christie character asking who was the murderer. It's about the drama and peculiarity of being conscious.
As a writer, Shawn prefers to remain unmoored from specificity, exploring instead themes that could be easily applied to other lives. That's why I hesitate to call "The Designated Mourner" a reflection of anything but Shawn's own inquiries. His characters are unhappy and obstinate, their language supremely individual, and though they're surrounded by politics, they're far from political symbols. Any person whose life is filled with art, chaos and the sense of being an outsider will relate to these people.
Reprising his role as Jack, Dean speaks to the audience like an old friend on a Sunday afternoon. He's likable and self-conscious. He pulls you in with his bumbling, nervous laughter - I was reminded of Woody Allen's charisma in the opening monologue of "Annie Hall." There's also a plainness to his manner of speaking, as if nothing he says bears more risk than a diary entry. The stage, after all, replicates that of a panel discussion, with folding chairs and water bottles. This is theater as told like a podcast - talk with none of the ornaments of the stage.
Duran's manner is starkly different. She's more dramatic, evincing outrage and anguish with gestures and changes in tone. It's a choice by director Jason Nodler that calls attention to itself, like red pepper in chicken soup. Sometimes her contrast against Dean pulls you out of Shawn's evocative words, though more often her elevated personality is a welcome jolt out of the gray and somber.
From a character perspective, Dean and Duran's opposing approaches are fitting enough to prevent the staging from feeling uneven. Though they sit next to each other, Jack and Judy speak to us from different realms. Judy is a reminder that the political upheaval is not an abstraction. Not everyone is afforded the privilege to ponder over tea.
Judy's demands are meant to feel visceral. Catastrophic Theatre is revisiting this play after first staging it in 2010. Its timing before Inauguration Day is not a coincidence. The connections between Jack, Judy and Howard's world and ours are scarily tangible. But, true to Shawn's instincts, the artists don't offer any one interpretation for the play, letting the audience decide for itself what it all means. Here, mystery has the last laugh.