The Dedicated Monologist: It’s Mourning in America

The REDCAT revival of Wallace Shawn’s 1996 The Designated Mourner is eerily timely, opening amidst the tyrannical Trump regime’s ongoing attack on its critics, ranging from el presidente’s firing of the FBI chief for his investigation of a citizen above suspicion (but beneath contempt) and the May 10 arrest of a reporter in West Virginia for the heinous thought crime of trying to ask “Health” Secretary Tom Price a question.

In Mourner, Larry Pine (a veteran of the big and little screen and stage with endless credits, including House of Cards and Dead Man Walking) portrays the poet Howard, a scion of the ruling class who turns against them and champions the "dirt people" (working class) in opposing the "rats" (elite). Daughter Judy (writer Deborah Eisenberg) is among Howard’s literary and political acolytes. As opposition to the rulers mounts leftist intellectuals are arrested and executed by the oligarchy.

Playwright Shawn stars as Judy’s husband Jack, a professor of English and at one point a sex columnist for a publication derided as “The Morning Urinal.” (Shawn co-starred in The Princess Bride, Toy Story, Gossip Girl and is the son of famed New Yorker Magazine editor William Shawn; in 1997 Mourner was adapted into a movie directed by British playwright/screenwriter David Hare, co-starring Shawn, Miranda Richardson and Mike Nichols).  

Although there is some dialogue between the characters, most of the play consists of the actors delivering monologues. Shawn, of course, is famous for this often witty, incisive repartee. The 1981 cult classic film My Dinner With Andre, co-written and co-starring the eponymous Andre Gregory (who also directs Mourner), basically consists of the two actors holding forth over a meal at a Manhattan café. Directed by Louis Malle, the conversation in Dinner is often absorbing and scintillating, as are the lines in Mourner.

During the course of its three hours, presented with one brief intermission, Mourner’s meditations cover a wide spectrum of topics: Class struggle, opposition, love, enemies, prison, sex, poetry, literature, John Donne, highbrow and lowbrow culture and much more. Jack in particular ruminates on inauthenticity, overacting, pretense and posturing. Shawn’s character ponders on what the true nature of “I”, the “self” are, through eloquently rendered masterful monologues. Mourner considers “clarity,” liberation from the “weightiness” of high culture - a moment of lucidity when the true meaning of life is revealed (or is it?).

Perhaps the latter is an expression of what Baba Ram Dass dubbed “Be Here Now,” living in the moment. In any case, although this reviewer didn’t fully comprehend what Mourner means, I loved this extremely well-acted, well-directed play. With little if any action per se onstage wherein the performance consists largely of speaking, this probably isn’t the cup of tea for theatergoers who love to tap their tootsies to 42nd Street and other mindless entertainments. Mourner is most definitely thoughtful entertainment, for more intellectually adventurous and curious ticket buyers who prefer thought provoking productions. For these type of viewers, the short run of Mourner is essential viewing - and a gem that will leave one pondering the mysteries of it all.

According to press notes, “The Designated Mourner is presented as part of REDCAT’s new Urgent Voices Series — a program of theatrical works confronting important issues that have even greater significance during a tumultuous time in the nation’s history.” And audiences should go see it - while el caudillo still allows plays like this to be staged.

The Designated Mourner runs Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through May 21 at REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: