A Place without Poetry

The Designated Mourner presents a troubling — and not so far-fetched — world.

The apocalyptic world of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner is a place without poetry, art or wisdom. And in Catastrophic Theatre’s production of this dark tale, it is also cloyingly claustrophobic. The group has staged the story in a small living room that holds only a few dozen audience members. The tiny, close space makes the play feel gut-wrenchingly visceral. You’re aware of people breathing all around as you watch the characters on stage move through a series of monologues about a political landscape where no one can be trusted and the government is both dangerous and omnipresent. The play is also very funny, in an utterly bleak way.

Carrying most of the weight — and humor — of the story is Jack (Greg Dean), the designated mourner of the title. “A former student of English literature who went downhill from there,” he is a walking, talking testament to everything that has gone wrong in this world. The play tracks Jack’s descent into anti-intellectualism, which actually ends up saving him from the horrific fictional government of the story.

For a time, Jack is married to Judy (played here by a beautifully regal Mikelle Johnson), a woman who loves “the beauty of silence,” concerts and poetry. Judy is the daughter of Howard (Paul Menzel), one of the last men on earth who can read John Donne; he’s still around because he is a friend of the old political regime. The characters speak straight out to the audience as they discuss art, television, pornography and politics. Each of these ideas pierces the darkness of the human experience, asking us to weigh the precious pretensions of art against the brutality of a world without people who care about such seemingly useless subjects as the difference between poetry and prose.

In the opening sequence, Jack tells us about a columnist who first coined the phrases “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” in 1902. These concepts are what eat at Jack, a man who is “clever enough to know that John Donne was offering something that was awfully enjoyable,” but not clever enough “to actually enjoy it.” He tells us about the first time he met Judy, and how he came to admire her father Howard even as he grew to despise him for his pretensions. The complexity of Jack’s feelings is wonderfully articulated in the looks of dark irony that flash across Dean’s face.

Talking about Jack, Howard shows off just how much of a snob he can be. He tells us that Jack is not a bad guy; he’s just lazy. In fact, he’s so lazy, his favorite foods are “soup, risotto, mashed potatoes and ice cream.” Here Jack, who’s listening to Howard’s observations, looks out at the audience and smirks and shrugs, accepting his own laziness and commenting without words on the inanity of Howard’s snobbishness.

Howard is an ass, but he’s also right about Jack. Over time, Jack turns into a man who chooses television over reading, pornography over intimacy —in short, he becomes everything that’s wrong with the new world order. And Jack doesn’t really give a damn, which is what makes his accepting shrug so sinister. He gets us to laugh at Howard, and so become everything that anyone who goes to the theater and believes in the value of art should despise.

As the characters talk about art, they also make vague references to a government that doesn’t approve of intellectuals. The information comes at the audience obliquely. “First there was the rock through Howard’s window,” says Jack. Later, we learn from Judy about the awakening of the “enemy,” or “dirt eaters.” The story about repression and the ultimate annihilation of “everyone on earth who could read John Donne” eventually overtakes the play, much like it might happen should such repressive ideas conquer our own world — “quietly,” as one character says, so that we don’t even know what’s happening until it’s too late.

Directed by Jason Nodler with heart-crushing grace, and beautifully acted by this smart cast — Dean gives the performance of his career here — the troubling play puts forth a bleak worldview that doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Who among us hasn’t been lured from a book to a magazine and ultimately to the television? Who actually knows the difference between poetry and prose anymore, and better yet, who still cares? We live in a world that grows hotter and seemingly darker by the day, one where Jack’s observation — that the only true pleasure left is “the sweet, ever-changing caress of an early evening breeze” — feels disturbingly true.