Mourner takes on the fall of culture

Whither high culture?

Where else but oblivion?

That’s the provocative premise of The Designated Mourner, Wallace Shawn’s one-of-a-kind play enjoying a potent Houston premiere in Catastrophic Theatre’s quietly stunning realization.

Artistic director Jason Nodler and his Catastrophic team have done it again. They’ve taken a uniquely challenging, unsettling and multilayered piece of theatrical writing, put their stamp on it and brought it to life with intimacy, immediacy and a sense of urgency — much as they did with Shawn’s quite different Our Late Night earlier this year.

The Designated Mourner originated at London’s National Theatre in 1996, with famed director Mike Nichols acting again for the first time in decades in its lead role. That production then played in New York, where it was likewise one of the toughest tickets to obtain — because the play is written to be performed in a small room with an audience of no more than 30 or 40.

Catastrophic has transformed its office space into a neat venue, with a few rows of seats on risers facing the tiny room in which the action occurs. That action, essentially, is three people talking. But as anyone who has seen Shawn’s conversational film My Dinner With Andre can attest, no one gets better mileage from talking heads.

Our three talkers are: Jack, an Everyman type recalling his association by marriage with a lofty intellectual circle; Judy, his cultured yet ineffectual wife; and Howard, her father, a famed poet and kingpin of their elite clique. Jack does most of the talking, with occasional speeches from Judy or Howard and, more rarely, brief exchanges between the three. Each is wrapped up in his or her little cocoon of self, one of the play’s key themes. Is the self just the “pile of random bric-a-brac” each of us has collected through life, jealously yet pointlessly defended?

Jack reveals the main premise early in his wide-ranging monologue, as he contemplates concepts of high-brow and low-brow. You know, poetry or Rembrandt versus TV or porn. While many claim to like the high culture stuff, Jack says, that’s usually a lie; they prefer the easy stuff. Yet Jack says we have to preserve this lie, otherwise, what are we but zoo animals?

Judy and Howard represent those who cherish that which Jack and his ilk cannot comprehend. Amid Jack’s wry musings, a narrative takes shape, revealing this trio’s history in a near future in an unnamed country.

As a repressive regime cracks down on rebels and intellectuals, Judy, Howard and all their set become increasingly irrelevant, then endangered.

The play’s repercussions are fascinating, at least to anyone who cares about the deterioration of culture. With the ever-accelerating dumbing down of just about everything, The Designated Mourner is more relevant today than when it premiered. As each passing year demonstrates, it doesn’t take a repressive government to destroy culture; the pressures of the marketplace can accomplish that perfectly well on their own.

Does Shawn sympathize with Jack? Or is he using him as devil’s advocate, so that those who disagree will stand up and declare they really likethe high-brow fare? Why, then, has Shawn given comparatively short shrift to smarties Judy and Howard? Why are they so much less sympathetic, while Jack, for all his loutishness, is somehow engaging? And aren’t the people who attend a profound talk fest such as The Designated Mourner exactly the kind of people the play is declaring endangered? Is Shawn telling his own audience it will soon be extinct?

Nodler’s direction gives the play a calm intensity and taut focus that enhance its meaning as a wistful yet ironic elegy.

Greg Dean is Jack, Mikelle Johnson is Judy, and Paul Menzel is Howard. The highest tribute to their performances (and Nodler’s direction) is that each of these fine actors has never been better. Dean carries the lion’s share of the script, and he’s ideal: spontaneous, conflicted, with a certain vitality but also an inherent apathy, a likable compendium of all our faults.

Johnson balances delicacy and distance as Judy, regretful yet remote, with subtly pointed delivery. Menzel’s condescension, stern intellect and wintry gravitas suit Howard nicely.

Certainly, for anyone who cares about the future of culture (or civilization or whatever you care to call it), The Designated Mourner is a must.