July 24, 2013

Dispatches from the Front: The Designated Mourner at The Public Theatrre, NYC

If you admire the plays of Wally Shawn--and if you don't, you're wrong--this is the one you've been waiting for: The Fever quite literally raised to the power of three. There are all the familiar Wally Shawn tropes and tricks--the lacerating putdown of the highbrow tribe (which, if you were raised among 'em, are painfully, side-splittingly funny); the arabesques of self-loathing and self-regard; the sudden little acts of brutality and desecration; false sentiment; horrific tableaux; the casual cruelty and dispassionate indifference doled out to stranger, family, lover and friend alike; the evisceration of every manifestation of good taste; the glee in misbehavior, etc..

But the dramaturgy is far more sophisticated, as the introduction of additional voices and characters supports a far more intricate interweave of episodes and arguments. Reviewers apparently want to make the play about life under a brutal oligarchy, which it is--in the same way Gone With The Wind is about the burning of Atlanta. It's far more of a kind of Socratic dialog, with the same sinuous, treacherous turns of thought--just when you think you know where it's headed, it pops up from behind and gooses you. And the concerns are the same: how should one live, how should one think, how should one behave, how should one be, how should one talk, in a world of other people (though unlike Plato, Shawn leads with the joke that God must love assholes since he's made so many of them--making it clear that the joke was told about himself, by yet another asshole). It's about knowing the infinite ways in which you are (of course) an asshole, in a world (of course) of assholes you were raised and trained to take your place among ... but who now know only too well that you don't quite measure up, and will at best be tolerated until the time you are cut loose. Murderous assholes, as it turns out. Shawn's protagonists have always been self-aware weasels; they know they ought to give a shit and don't--it seems in almost all the plays that "mere" survival is a dominant concern. What's new here, though, is that the weasel has somehow acquired a thinly-disguised working knowledge of Buddhism (the jokes about the self and the soul being some of the best). Who knew?

The performances alone are revelatory (all 3 understand only too well the power of words to harm) and the brief fight between Shawn and Eisenberg is a brilliant dissection of the layers of contempt that support any long, stable relationship. The space is so tiny, it feels like a master class, or an intimate dinner, at a one of our finest restaurants, prepared by an exquisite prisoner. .