In Wallace Shawn's challenging play "The Designated Mourner" are three people. The setup is simple. Two men and a woman sit in chairs facing the audience, and very occasionally they may get up, and very occasionally one may address a comment to the other. What they really do is talk to us. About halfway through the older man, Howard, goes and doesn't return. Toward the end, the woman, Judy, goes. That leaves Jack, offering last thoughts.
The formalism leaves no clue to the complexity or direction of the work. In Shawn's recent pieces "Aunt Dan and Lemon" and "The Fever," for instance, somebody talks to us. There are quite a few people in "Aunt Dan and Lemon," but the framework is the same. In "The Fever" there is one person, and we don't know who he or she is. Shawn wrote it for small groups, to be done in homes or apartments by man or woman, old or young. All we know in "The Designated Mourner" is that Jack is older than Judy and Howard is older than Jack. Where exactly they are, what country even, and when is left open, a feature shared with "The Fever."
These plays lie at the other end of the spectrum from musical-theater bombast. They keep a very slender grip on theatricality, reducing it to bare essentials: actor/audience, little but words between.
The theater has a choice, of course. The Tarragon, which has opened its new season with Shawn, has dressed up "The Designated Mourner" with design. In keeping with the piece, it is simple-looking: a sloped stage made of wide bare wooden planks, three chairs. The lighting design is something else. It moves dynamically, drawing with striking precision rectangular boxes around the three chairs, shifting colors from gray to browns and darker, which has the effect of changing our ideas of what is what, a subtle assault on perspective (set by Julie Fox and Michael Levine, lighting by Andrea Lundy).
Shawn's work travels, but not everywhere (it hasn't been done in Buffalo theaters, for example), and so the Tarragon's performance is important. The actors are as good as they have to be (Eric Peterson as Jack, Clare Coulter as Judy, Paul Bettis as Howard). This may sound like faint praise, but the single essential virtue in performing Shawn's work is conviction. He is getting at something, and that something is in us whether we like it or not. At stake is a truth about all of us.
A play like "The Designated Mourner," and other of Shaw's work, is disorienting and disturbing. The discomfiture Shawn's work produces is moral. It suggests that what we take to be our pristine principles are in fact covered in moral sludge. How can we go on with our lives, knowing as we do about the world and all the cruel and violent depredations visited on vast numbers of our fellow humans? How is it we are so capable of turning a blind eye? Is the intellectual life, culture itself, a means of escape from this? This sort of ambivalence runs very deep.
Right away in "Aunt Dan and Lemon," Lemon says she's reading accounts of the Holocaust. She says the least you can say for the Nazis is that "they managed to accomplish a great deal of what they wanted to do. They were certainly successful against the Jews." The person in a faraway hotel room in "The Fever" imagines that there are "people being awakened suddenly at night by groups of armed men. Suppose they are being dragged into a stinking van with a carpet on the floor and stomped by boots till their lips are swollen like oranges, streaming with blood. Yes, I was alive when those things were done. . . . But I love the violin. I love the music, the dancers, everything I touch, everything I see."
And "The Designated Mourner's" Jack? He's on the fringes of a high-up intellectual circle, having married Judy, Howard's daughter. Howard is a poet and writer, and his group is within the margins of the ruling families. But people start disappearing from the circle, and the same kind of bunch Lemon and Anonymous refer to, barge into Howard's and Judy's home (she and Jack are divorced), kill Howard and finally execute Judy. Jack doesn't do anything. He moves into a grimy apartment. He sits in the park. He makes a discovery.
Jack learns, he tells us in a key passage, that what he took to be the "self" is just a "pile of bric-a-brac." All the baggage of sophistication he assimilated around Howard and Judy and their friends, he throws away. Now that they're all gone he's the only one left who has ever heard of John Donne, or could begin to read a Donne poem. He's the designated mourner for that disappeared class. And what is he? His welcome discovery is that he is a "lowbrow." He finds himself on a park bench, freed of any "self," cleansed of self-pretense.
He experiences an epiphany: "I sat on the bench for a very long time, lost -- sunk deep -- in the experience of unbelievable physical pleasure, maybe the greatest pleasure we can know on this earth -- the sweet, ever-changing caress of an early evening breeze."
The words end the play. What are we to make of this? We can hardly begrudge Jack his mystical attachment to the world. But to get there he has had to trample poetry, shed all of what we like to call "fine feelings," look on impassively as his old bunch, the cultured class, is expunged. Aren't we supposed to prize poetry, all those things, the cultivated self?
Shawn is not a crude polemicist. He is a very subtle writer, so that as we listen to Howard, Judy and Jack we gravitate in Jack's direction. His lowbrow acquiescence is upsetting. After all, we are sitting in a theater. How does it all fit? Or is the point that it oughtn't to fit? That what we do is take in all this stuff, acknowledge it, go on choosing wines, listening to music, writing poetry, sopping up the cream of culture while in another department of our minds we know how the world really is. It suggests a deplorable lack of moral imagination.
The Designated Mourner
Rating:**** A play for three people by Wal lace Shawn. Directed by Daniel Brooks, with Eric Peterson, Clare Coulter, Paul Bettis. Performances Tuesday through Saturday, through Oct. 26. Tar ragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave., Toronto; (416) 531-1827.UE1