Chosen People: The Designated Mourner Is Well-Produced Snobbery

'Nobody Loves You' is lowbrow striving

Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine and Deborah Eisenberg in 'The Designated Mourner.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine and Deborah Eisenberg in ‘The Designated Mourner.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

“I envied him simply because of the way he could read,” Wallace Shawn, starring as Jack in his play The Designated Mourner, says of Jack’s famous-poet father-in-law Howard, whose highbrow intellect both attracts and repels him. “It was so easy, so casual. The way I might have picked up an article about the latest scandalous love affairs of the former chief of police”—Jack, who has described himself as “a former student of English literature who went downhill from there,” has previously confessed to enjoying reading the newspaper—“he would pick up a book of poems by John Donne. I mean, I was clever enough to know that John Donne was offering something that was awfully enjoyable—I just wasn’t clever enough to actually enjoy it.”

The monologues, like this one—and the play is virtually all alternating, sometimes interwoven monologues—are arias, dense, often discursive, wry and funny. As played by a stellar cast, they are virtuosically delivered, engrossing and enchanting. The look is a schlumpy, homey sort of post-apocalyptic, with the actors in mostly nondescript black, the stage and set all washed-out grays with a few pieces of worn furniture. The sound design is vaguely haunting. The play looks good, sounds good, is acted well.

And yet there’s an unavoidable question as you leave the Public Theater, where this revival opened Sunday night in a co-production with Theatre for a New Audience: are you clever enough to enjoy The Designated Mourner? Am I?

Originally produced in London in 1996, Mourner premiered in New York in 2000, mounted in a disused Wall Street gentlemen’s club and, for the first time, directed by Mr. Shawn’s friend and close collaborator André Gregory. The venue accommodated an audience of only 30 people per performance, and in a lukewarm review, Charles Isherwood, writing for Variety, dubbed it “unquestionably the snob hit of the season.” Mr. Gregory is once again directing—this time in a Shiva Theater configured to seat 99—and with the same cast: Mr. Shawn, increasingly haggard and bulbous but otherwise just as idiosyncratically electric as you remember him, as Jack; Deborah Eisenberg, the writer who is Mr. Shawn’s partner, angular and astringent as Jack’s wife, Judy; Larry Pine messily patrician as her father, Howard. (Eugene Lee, Dona Granata and Bruce Oddland designed the scenes, costumes and sound.) It is unquestionably a snob event, and clearly one should enjoy it; what’s harder to discern is whether one did. The theater wasn’t full on the night I attended, and it was less full after intermission.

What happens in the play, after all? There is no virtually no action onstage; everything is described in the past tense. (That what could easily be a radio play remains visually compelling for much of its three-hour run time speaks to Mr. Gregory’s great directorial skill.) When late arrivals are seated, 10 or 15 minutes into the play, Mr. Shawn does a funny, clearly rehearsed bit wondering how they’ll understand the play if they’ve missed the beginning—before admitting with a chuckle that they’ll understand it fine, because he’s not yet given away any important information.

What’s ultimately revealed are two overlapping stories, one personal and one societal. In the personal one, Jack falls in love with Judy and into infatuation with her father, moving into their home and at least into the periphery of their circle, until eventually they split and their worlds collapse around them. In the larger story, their crowd is made up of intellectuals affiliated with a ruling elite; when the “dirt-eaters,” as the rabble are repeatedly called, revolt, they are, variously, beaten, imprisoned and unfaithful to their cause. What cause remains mysterious: the specifics of the political situation aren’t detailed and who is doing what to whom isn’t entirely clear. There is a lot of talking; there is less clarity.

Mr. Shawn, as the playwright, keeps returning to themes of authenticity, self and changes over time. Can there even be an authentic self if yesterday’s self is different from today’s, which is different from tomorrow’s? Jack is authentic for aspiring to be more intellectual than he is; the intellectuals are inauthentic for sympathizing (maybe?) with the dirt-eaters while enjoying the favor of the regime (I think?). Jack is the only one to survive, the last to remember an intellectual culture he admired but never quite understood—its designated mourner.

As for your humble reviewer, I am clever enough to admire The Designated Mourner, even if I don’t quite understand it.

I can also enjoy an entertaining piece of fluff even when I don’t particularly admire it. That millions of Americans feel that way is the successful business proposition behind our many reality-TV shows. It also provides a perfect descriptor for Nobody Loves You, a fairly predictable pop-musical sendup of reality dating competitions that opened last week at the Second Stage Theatre and offers a frothy, if non-
filling, good time.

Jeff (Bryan Fenkart) is a philosophy grad student who goes on a glossy reality show called Nobody Loves You—it’s the “you’re fired”-style catchphrase that each week’s loser hears as he or she is escorted away—in an effort to win back his ex-girlfriend, who’s obsessed with the show. When it turns out that she’s not also in the cast, Jeff decides to stick around to investigate the disconnect between reality and “reality.” Soon enough, he falls for an earnest production assistant, Jenny (Aleque Reid), who really wants to be a filmmaker, and—wouldn’t you know it?—despite the producers’ efforts to quash their love (or milk it for ratings) they end up living happily ever after.

The musical, with a book by Itamar Moses (he co-wrote the lyrics with Gaby Alter, who wrote the music), works least well when it tries to be profound and high-minded about reality TV’s representation of reality. It’s an area that has been well mined, and more effectively so, all the way back in Albert Brooks’s first film, Real Life. The plot mechanics can also feel forced, from the producers allowing Jeff to leave the show’s “house” to hang out with Jenny backstage to Jeff’s initial selection to be on the show as a Howard Beale-ian truth-teller.

But as Nobody Loves You settles into pure reality-TV mockery, it becomes a delicious if junky treat. There’s the de rigueur smarmy, shellacked host, Bryon (Heath Calvert), a series of parodic reality-TV touches, from the Cupid Sceptre, which confers on its holder the right to pick rooming assignments, to the Locker of Desire, into which competitors can slip notes, to the Balance Beam of Love, one of the challenges couples must face. Leslie Kritzer is typically excellent as the canny producer; Autumn Hurlbert and Rory O’Malley are hilarious as standard-issue meathead reality contestants. (Mr. O’Malley is even better as Evan, Jenny’s TV-obsessed, Twitter-ing roommate.) Mr. Alter’s score is upbeat and engaging, and if the direction by Michelle Tattenbaum is perfectly adequate, the choreography by Mandy Moore (yes, that Mandy Moore) is flashy, fun and spot-on.

Which is all to say: nobody is going to love Nobody Loves You, but it’s very easy to like it.