7.27.13 — I went back to see The Designated Mourner, and I can testify that after five viewings (the David Hare film twice and three live performances) I’m still absorbing new passages and nuances from Wallace Shawn’s extraordinary play about the demise of a politically independent intelligentsia from the perspective of a fellow traveler not especially unhappy about its disappearance. Somehow I’d never paid attention to the fleeting reference by Jack, the title character (played by Shawn himself in the Andre Gregory production at the Public Theater), to the moment when “my thing started – you know, mental problems or whatever you’d call them.” Suddenly, the character’s wayward cognitive associations and gaps in simple human empathy became clearer and more comprehensible to me. Over drinks afterwards, Dave and Tim and I tried to imagine how George W. Bush would describe life in America during his pathetic presidency – what events he would highlight and which he would omit that anyone else would consider important. And we talked a lot about the performances, especially that of Deborah Eisenberg, who plays Jack’s wife Judy. I think most people who see the play will know that she and Wally Shawn are a couple offstage (they’ve been together 40-some years), but not everybody knows that Eisenberg is an exceptionally gifted fiction writer herself. Recipient of many big awards (including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship), she has published several collections of short stories, many of them actually quite long, many of them first published in the New Yorker. (You can read a long interview with her in the Paris Review’s legendary “The Art of Fiction” series here.) She’s not a trained or especially experienced actor, but her performance in The Designated Mourner is compelling for its combination of sculptural stillness and emotional fullness. We sat in the first row directly in front of the wooden chair she occupies for most of the show’s three-hour running time, which gave us a perfect vantage point to study her amazing face.
When Andy and I saw the show a few weeks ago, we arrived just after curtain time (7:00! Not 7:30!) and weren’t seated until 12 minutes into the show, when Wally departs from the script to give a brief recap to the latecomers. This time, there were about 10 spectators who arrived late, and as they were ushered in Wally gave them an entirely different spiel than I’d heard before, and apparently it was new to the other actors because Eisenberg and Larry Pine were discreetly cracking up while he was improvising about the scenes the latecomers had missed. After the show, Wally observed his tradition of standing by the exit available for conversation, and he told me this performance was the best in the run so far. “Only one sleeper,” he noted. (Since the three actors speak most of the time directly to the audience rather than each other, they have plenty of time to study the crowd.) A good chunk of the audience, maybe 20 out of 99, left at intermission, but that didn’t bother him at all: “It was better after they left.”