08/08/2013 03:34 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

First Nighter: "The Designated Mourner" Still Wallace Shawn's Masterpiece, Only More So

Wallace Shawn's darkly sublime three-hour play--and worth every devastating minute of it--The Designated Mourner was done initially in a 1996 staged reading at London's National Theatre, directed by David Hare with Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser. In 2000, it premiered stateside in an out-of-the-way Wall Street walk-up that was formerly a men's club, with Andre Gregory directing Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine Now it's revived at the Public Theater's 99-seat Shiva through August 25.
Both times I previously saw the play--which takes place in an unnamed country falling under
a repressive government and focuses on a man called Jack descending into intellectual decay--I was convinced Shawn had written his masterpiece. Now that the 2000 production is brought back in collaboration with Theatre for a New Audience, I realize I'm inflexible on the subject. I'll brook no conflicting opinions. I'm at great odds with anyone complaining about its length or its supposed high-mindedness.
Not unlike The Flick that took three hours to unfold at Playwrights Horizons earlier this year, not only does The Designated Mourner need every one of its inspired words, but this go-round I felt it was even more pertinent than it was previously--if only because the threat of a destructively dumbed-down culture is indisputably that much closer to us than it was 17 years ago in 1996 or 13 ago back in 2000.
While I have to admit that there is much macabre humor in the work and I understood why fellow audience members were laughing from time to time, I was unable to. My response to Jack (Shawn) as a monster who could be called the embodiment of Hannah Arendt's idea about the banality of evil throttled me. The vision of a soulless future hurtling towards us like a rampaging comet froze me.
When I reviewed the drama for TheaterMania in 2000, I wrote: "The anxious playwright is in despair about the direction in which civilization is heading. Howard (Pine)--arrogant and self-involved--and Judy (Eisenberg)--depressed from the get-go--are partly responsible for the downward trend, but Jack is more so. Despite protestations to the contrary, he's not an ignorant man; he sees the failings of Howard and Judy with a basilisk eye. Rather, he's merely pampered and aimless, and too morally undernourished to do anything about it. The fact that he remains morally the nitty gritty of this contemporary tragedy."
I wouldn't change a word of the assessment, and if I were adding anything to that much longer review, I'd say that though Jack mocks poetry written not only by his father-in-law Howard but by John Donne as well, what he's speaking, as it takes it innumerably fascinating twists, is its own poem. It may not be stretching credulity too far to say The Designated Mourner is Shawn's spin on T. S. Eliot's 1922 epic, The Waste Land. I thought I might quote extensively from Shawn but decided that since just about every syllable is a mordant surprise, I'd leave them all, every vituperative sentence, every monologue, to be heard and not read.
The other changes noticeable here are the depth of the Shawn and Eisenberg performances. I don't recall Shawn's knavish outpourings as being quite so ripe with cheerfully creepy self-satisfaction. Eisenberg, who's recognized as one of our foremost short story authors, has infused her performance with even more hauteur. She's so world-weary that when she moves, it seems as if she's on the verge of evaporating. Pine is always a master of his lines and remains so as he portrays Howard's remarked-upon contemptuous assessments of fellow poets.
There is an element of unsettling irony built into The Designated Mourner that also still obtains now as in the past. As it expounds on the demise of an ingrown elite, its being performed in a 99-seat house can't help but suggest a questionably elitist slant. Speaking of that, the run is officially sold out, but there are $20 rush tickets available daily. Go get 'em.