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LA Theater Review

The Designated Mourner

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Actor-playwright Wallace Shawn's plays have a distinctly literary, quirky, and ambling quality about them. And they require an almost superhuman level of acting and direction to pull them off. This piece, about a family of literary lions in a country on the brink of chaos, is a prime example of the challenges of Shawn's work. In the original London production, it took the combined efforts of legendary playwright-director David Hare and a cast that included Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson to successfully mount the play.

Not that Shawn's exploration of the worlds of highbrow, politically ambiguous, and complex characters does not have its appeal. The idea of the disappearance of high culture in the midst of political upheaval, as well as the whole notion of the value of literature, is compelling, intellectually if not emotionally. But Shawn's narrative style, which consists of ongoing, offhand introspection by the main character, lends an emotional coolness that crimps the theatricality of his work. It often feels like we are trapped in a short story rather than witnessing a dramatic tale.

Director Matthew McCray and his trio of actors—Michael Kass, Sarah Boughton, and Don Boughton—do a credible job of bringing Shawn's play to life. Kass finds handles in the tangle of his character's neurosis, but in the end Shawn's idiosyncratic voice is missing from the portrayal. No wonder Shawn played the role in the New York productions. Sarah Boughton is engaging and earnest as the daughter devoted to her father, yet seeking love from her boyfriend, and Don Boughton is solidly imperious as the cultural icon of the family.

Missing from the direction and the acting is the subtext of a very particular intellectual culture that still exists in the corners of the major (mostly European) cities and in some universities. This is a rarified species that most audiences are only dimly aware of, but it is the world of Wallace Shawn, who is after all the son of the potentate of high culture, William Shawn, late editor of the New Yorker. So while it is hard to blame McCray and his actors for missing the mark in this production, it should be quickly added that the mark is virtually impossible for mere mortals to reach.

Presented by and at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.
May 1–23. Fri.–Tue., 8 p.m. (Also Sat. 3 p.m. May 16.)(800) 383-3006 or www.sonofsemele.org

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