I’ve become something of a broken record on the subject of immersive theater, theater that brings the audience into the action, which I’ve made the case for multiple times on this site. But in a way, what I’m really making the case for is theater itself, because all theater holds out the potential for a direct connection between actor and audience that simply cannot happen when experience is mediated by a screen.
I hold that proposition as kind of a logical axiom. A great way to test that axiom would be to head to New York’s Public Theater this weekend to experience the Wallace Shawn-André Gregory Project. Two plays written by and starring Shawn and directed by Gregory – The Designated Mourner, which is playing now, and Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which premiers in October – form the heart of the project, but this weekend Joe’s Pub is also showing three film collaborations between the two artists, “Vanya on 42nd Street,” “My Dinner With André,” and “André Gregory: Before and After Dinner.” The first is one of my favorite films, and the second is a wonderful experience as well; the last I’ve not yet seen.
The films test the proposition in one way. “Vanya on 42nd Street” is a film based on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the conceit of which is that we are watching a bunch of actors rehearse the play for a private audience in a run-down Broadway theater. But the “rehearsal” never formally launches; the actors elide seamlessly from their pre-rehearsal chatter into the play itself, and they act out the play in a space that is far too intimate to actually be the playing space of a theater. What I cherish about the film is, beyond the performances themselves, which are extraordinary, the incredible intimacy achieved between performers and audience, as if we really were sitting right there in front of them as in a theater. The fact of distance, of our actual position as unobservable spies, almost dissolves. It’s a very rare cinematic achievement.
“My Dinner With André” achieves something similar, by introducing us to the Wallace Shawn character as the audience’s anxious and dyspeptic stand-in at the start, and having him address us directly through voice-over so we understand just what his frame of mind is going into his fabled dinner, and so we can become comfortable with our own apprehensions, which are likely to be similar. Gregory is presented as a kind of monster of art – a charming and friendly monster, but a monster nonetheless, something untamable and unassimilable to normal life – who raises a real question as to whether art itself can be so assimilated, or whether art is opposed to normal life as such (which would seem to be all the worse for art, and the artist). The ideas are at least somewhat interesting, but what’s truly engaging is the experience of identifying with the Shawn character, trying to keep up with Gregory and then finally, unable to contain himself any longer, bursting out and questioning the entirety of Gregory’s life as he has presented it. Once again, we feel, almost, like we are at dinner with them; our consciousness of the reality of our unbridgeable distance almost falls away. Almost.
When it was first staged in New York, The Designated Mourner played out in an “environment” – a ruined building – somewhat like that of “Vanya on 42nd Street,” and the audience had to follow the action, such as it is, from one room to another. The current production removes that immersive element. It also takes pains to remind us that we are the audience, separate from the performers, by reminding us that they are performers – specifically, by having a technician come on stage and mic the actors while we are watching. The play proper then begins with a ritualistic action and incantation: Wallace Shawn lights a spool of paper on fire; it burns up, the glowing ash floating up toward the ceiling like a short-lived fire balloon; and he intones, “I am the designated mourner.”
Everything has been done so far, in other words, to turn us into formal observers rather than participants. And then, the play begins, and Shawn takes us on a journey that requires us to identify thoroughly with, and feel intimate with, his character, Jack, a man without a character, who, by the end, denies even the existence of a self.
At the outset, the premise of the play appears to be that Jack is the “designated mourner” for his late father-in-law, Howard, a representative eastern WASP intellectual, born to wealth and privilege but convinced that he, with his refined sensibility, truly understands the oppressed of the world in a way that nobody else quite does – and that this understanding, untethered to any concrete action, much less actual engagement, is ultimately all that matters. Jack sketches a devastating caricature of a type with which Shawn is intimately familiar, a sketch not at all belied by the snippets of self-regarding dialogue that we get from Howard himself (a comfortably leonine Larry Pine), or the idolizing interjections from his cut crystal patrician daughter, Judy (played by Deborah Eisenberg), who is so devoted to her father that Jack finds the spectacle almost incestuous.
By the interval, we are entirely on the self-deprecating and cynical Jack’s side and against Howard’s, even though there are intimations that all is far from right with the (never very clearly specified) world that we are in. It becomes clear that the government is none too happy with left-wing intellectuals, and has decided to rid the country of them, with maximum brutality. We hear of executions in restaurants, beatings in public; and, shortly after the interval, the entire clan is shipped off to prison.
Not Jack, of course. By this point he has broken with his former wife, and set himself up a new life of television watching and perusal of pornography that suits him much better, so he says, than his earlier life of trying to be an intellectual, because you see, he was never really cut out for that. He was clever enough, he says, to know how enjoyable, say, John Donne’s poetry can be. He just wasn’t clever enough to actually enjoy it. And throwing off the guilt of not measuring up has been positively liberating – a liberation followed by further liberations as he discards any particular concern for other human beings, and even the bedrock sense of self. His body is just a shell, he maintains, for a new human being to inhabit every day; and after he has burned another spool of paper to the now extinct clan of intellectuals – Howard, Judy and all their friends have been publicly executed by the state, and Jack is mourning all of them together, but only as formality – Jack concludes that the world is much better off without them and their over-refined sensibilities, when you think about it.
When I lay out the “plot” of the play as I just did, it sounds very stupid. The fantasy of persecution is terribly dear to intellectuals everywhere, but only occasionally does it bear any relation to reality – and when it does, it is because the persecuted have genuinely threatened the power structure by their actions (or caused the paranoid power structure to think they have done so). Outside of a truly totalitarian framework, within which someone like Jack would only thrive by careful attention the demands of obedience, poseurs like Howard pose no threat, and are not molested. The martyrs of our time are not those with inconvenient opinions, but those who reveal inconvenient facts; their intellectual sensibilities are really beside the point.
But I don’t think it’s important to take the persecution fantasy as literally true. What’s important is our experience of sympathy for the Jack character, and of antipathy for the chilly Judy and the Olympian Howard, and how that shapes our reaction to what happens to them. I identified with Jack’s resentful but poignant complaint that the self feels like a burden to him. The pressure of maintaining a persona with ethical continuity makes him feel like a criminal, desperately trying to remember his alibis. It would feel liberating to throw this off, and be new born every day, without any responsibility for one’s own past or future, or for anybody else. And I didn’t believe Judy’s reports about what was going on in her society – the riots and repression, the disappearances, and so forth – because she sounded so secretly pleased to be able to report such horrors, the final eruption of the fascism that she and her smart set had so long argued was simmering just beneath the surface. It was a genuine shock when Jack corroborated her reports, the moment when we realize what kind of person we are sympathizing with.
That fact – that we filter vital information about the world around us through a sieve of sympathy and antipathy – is the important experience of the play. I liked Jack – I would have been happy to hang out with him. I couldn’t stand Judy and Howard any more than he could. But my sympathy for him is sympathy for a kind of devil – or, better, for one who has gleefully damned himself.
It’s really a remarkable achievement, this pushing us away, then pulling us back in simply by being personable – only to reveal that our own sympathy has damned us. It’s not exactly a fun experience – the play is quite long, and feels it – but it’s a remarkable one, and a distinctly theatrical one.
The Designated Mourner runs through August 25th at New York’s Public Theater.