Clocking in at three hours and consisting mostly of monologues delivered directly to the audience, Wallace Shawn’s 1996 “The Designated Mourner” at the Public is anything but fluff. The death being mourned is that of a “very special little world” of precious intellectuals in an unspecified, increasingly totalitarian country. Jack (played by playwright Shawn) is the title character, although it’s never clear how or by whom he was designated. And his mourning is less than convincing. The only lowbrow in a trio with two highbrows — his wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg) and father-in-law Howard (Larry Pine) — he seems to be just fine with the passing of the pretentious and privileged intelligentsia.
With his slight lisp and everyman demeanor, Shawn’s buoyant but casual energy goes a long way to keep the play afloat. His lines are frequently funny and his delivery impeccable. He dominates the recitation of anecdotes and socio-political observations, sometimes getting quite personal, as when he complains about Judy’s habit of parading naked in front of her father. Still, much of the material is esoteric, and three hours can seem like an eternity. An aura of erudition hovers over the work, but good luck trying to parse its point or meaning.
The first act concentrates on the personal: the relationships among the three characters and others in their circle. Act II is more explicit about the ruthless executions and murders presumably initiated by the government.
While deaths abound, nothing really happens in the play. It’s a work of words, not actions. People speak with seeming acuity, often purposefully pointless. “The Designated Mourner” is challenging and thought-provoking, to be sure, but many will find it tedious.