The Designated Mourner – Not really a review

by Jessica Goldman,

Greg Dean (Jack), Patricia Duran (Judy) and Paul Menze (Howard) in Designated Mourner

Greg Dean (Jack), Patricia Duran (Judy) and Paul Menze (Howard) in Designated Mourner. Photo by Anthony Rathbun.

This isn’t a review of Catastrophic Theatre’s excellent production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. If it were, I’d praise Shawn’s timely play that skewers the entitled arrogance of the intellectually elite while at the same time decrying the dumbing down of society. Written in 1996, but painfully hitting us where we presently live, Mourner cleverly takes swipes at the highbrow/lowbrow underbelly and warns us that things won’t end well for anyone.

If I were reviewing, I’d also have to gush about Shawn’s delicious language delivered by its three characters in monologue as they sit at a table facing the audience and describe their lives leading up to and in the era of a totalitarian takeover. A takeover that violently culls the elites and the culturally elevated from society. Sure there is Shawn’s famous moralizing and yes he serves up more post show topics of conversation than is possible for any one human being to tackle. But he also gifts us with wildly funny and imaginative lines such as, “My dick lay limply inside my trousers, like a little lunch packed by Mother.”

But like I said, this isn’t a review of the play.

Instead, I’d like to address the notion of favorites.

Upon learning I’m a theater critic, it usually doesn’t take long for a certain kind of folk to ask me what my favorite company is or who my favorite actors are. This has been the case no matter what city I’ve worked in. Who do I think is the best in town X – they want to know.

Over the years I’ve found polite ways to non-answer this question. Not because I’m afraid of showing bias, although that would be good reason enough. But because I truly don’t have these kinds of favorites when it comes to theater. I may love a certain play or performance, but to then say that the company producing the work or the actor performing it is my favorite is, to my mind, ludicrous. It would imply that I’ve loved everything they’ve done and that simply is never the case in my experience. No talent is infallible. It would also suggest that I would like in future anything they would do, and that’s not only unprofessional but crystal ball hooey.

Instead, I like to discuss artists that intrigue me. Those talents who, while I may ardently dislike some (or even much) of their efforts, find ways to wow me in manners that stick. Seeing as much theater as I do, it’s not the consistently good that tingles my nerves over time, it’s the occasionally terrific I remember and thrill about long after the show is gone.

As it turns out, three artists I feel fall into this category were featured in The Designated Mourner – cast members Greg Dean, Patricia Duran and director Jason Nodler. (The show also featured a terrific Paul Menzel, but as this was the first time I’d seen him on stage, I’ll leave him out of this discussion) So three talents that have at one point or another immensely  impressed me. Dangerous ground I worried. Could all three make magic together or would this be another case of better luck next time for one or more of them? Happily for me, and I believe the rest of the audience, this was a distinct case of intriguing artists doing killer work. More specifically, doing killer work because they were all in it together.

No matter the production, it’s always apparent Nodler (also the artistic director of Catastrophic) is enraptured with his script. You can feel the love in his productions. There is passion and energy and an undercurrent of fanboying that desperately wants us to see what he sees in the work. When Nodler gets it right, it’s very very right. I saw this most recently with his direction of Mickle Maher’s Song About Myself – a show I would have enjoyed far less had the direction not been as beautifully elegant as it was. And here, with Designated Mourner, he does it again. There’s no doubt that Director Nodler revels in Shawn’s script. The love of the ideas and words ooze out of every pore in this production. But unlike some of Nodler’s other efforts I’ve seen, here he doesn’t let his reverence get in the way of making sure the production itself thrills. Breathing room, energy, drawing out palpable action from sedentary characters, humor and suspense – these are all elements that Nodler expertly stirs into and teases out of this fine production.

With such care and attention, it’s no wonder that Dean and Duran both rise to the challenge and deliver their particular brand of wow.

So many of Greg Dean’s performances have rocked my world. This makes it all the more frustrating when I simply can’t pick up what he’s putting down. A physically tic-y performer, I’ve watched his motor skills overshadow his grasp of character. I’ve also seen him shockingly perform from script, not yet having his lines down. No such trouble here. Not only does Dean carry the two-act aggressively verbose script on his very well prepared shoulders with perfect fluidity, he does so with an effortless physical ballet, punctuating all that is said or thought. To watch his hands flutter to his face – perhaps to tap at his mouth in contemplation or to nervously groom his mustache is like watching another fascinating and fully formed character on stage. In fact, his physical prowess as a man who is anything but powerful in this show is so absorbing that often I caught myself staring at him even when it wasn’t his turn to speak. This is Dean at his finest.

Patricia Duran is one of those intriguing performers who, as of yet, has not taken any distinctly wrong turns in the time I’ve watched her. While not necessarily always afterglow memorable in all her roles, it’s fair to say that to date I’ve found her to be a strong and often remarkable actor. And while this season it’s hard to top her barn burning performance as Victoria in Motherfucker with the Hat (Obsidian Theatre), this effort might be a good second. Calm and haughty with a soupçon of vulnerability, Duran’s eyes blaze at us from the stage and we hang on her every word. That she is utterly unlikable as a character matters none, Duran’s compelling portrayal ensures that we welcome every syllable.

So what was the point in my saying all this? Why give a non-review that simply singles out talents doing exceptional jobs in a show? Well dear Houston theater goers, whether you make it to The Designated Mourner or not, these are artists I want you to keep on your radar. To actively look for their productions and then attend. Sure, you could be disappointed. Not every effort is going to shine brightly. But on the chance that you catch them in brilliance, that kind of end of rainbow gold pot is what every theater lover is hoping for.

My advice is simple – take a chance to be wowed.