December 11, 2018

Wallace Shawn finds perfect time to bring his play ‘Designated Mourner’ to Los Angeles

In Wallace Shawn’s 1996 play, “The Designated Mourner,” three artist-intellectuals recount how their country gradually slid into political uncertainty, anti-intellectualism and totalitarianism. Sound familiar? In an era when falsehoods are spun as alternative facts and the media are branded as the enemy of the people by the president, the production feels as relevant as ever.

“We all, I suppose, dream of finding ways to resist the authoritarian tide,” Shawn said in an interview with the Journal at the Millennium Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles. In a corner of the hotel bar, he sipped iced tomato juice and spoke slowly, carefully weighing his words.

“Complacency is an incredibly powerful, compelling force in my life,” he said. “I experience very few moments when I’m not aware of the suffering that’s going on and my own role in it.”

REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles is hosting 10 performances of “The Designated Mourner” through May 21 as part of its “Urgent Voices” series. The cast is the same as in the show’s 2000 run in New York, featuring Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine, directed by longtime Shawn collaborator André Gregory.

Pine plays Howard, a venerated poet. Eisenberg (an acclaimed fiction writer and Shawn’s longtime companion) plays Howard’s daughter, Judy, and Shawn plays her husband, Jack. They deliver a series of intersecting monologues that over the course of three hours touch on existential questions of morality and identity.

An esteemed author and performer, whose nonfiction collection “Essays” was published in 2009, Shawn leads something of a double career. Many know him as a highbrow playwright and the co-star (with Gregory) of 1981’s “My Dinner with André,” the Louis Malle-directed film that consists entirely of a nearly two-hour dinner conversation between two old friends. Many more know him as the owlish high school teacher Mr. Hall from “Clueless” and Vizzini from “The Princess Bride.”

Shawn seems to move easily between the sanctified world of theater and the mass-market entertainment of animated films. He draws these comparisons in “The Designated Mourner,” in which his character reflects on his disenchantment with Judy and Howard’s intellectual airs, and admits to relief at no longer having to pretend to be cultured.

Shawn’s own intellectual pedigree is unassailable, and he speaks candidly about his own privileged upbringing in Manhattan. His parents were William Shawn, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, and journalist Cecille Shawn. He studied history at Harvard, and philosophy, politics, economics and Latin at Oxford. He taught English in India as a Fulbright scholar.

He writes in “Essays” that his parents were “completely (some might say excessively) assimilated American Jews.”

“They moved from Chicago and left their Jewishness completely behind,” Shawn said.

Shawn refers to himself as an atheist, though he acknowledges that the issues he probes in his writing, such as what it means to be a moral person and how to address the suffering of others, are integral to Judaism, “almost stereotypically so,” he said, saying both of his parents also were preoccupied with such issues. “If I’d come from a different background,” he said, “I wouldn’t be remotely me.”

Shawn’s politics tend to be far left of center. He identifies as a socialist and is critical of United States intervention in foreign countries, as well as of many of President Donald Trump’s policies.

“There’s no question that a lot of people disapprove of him. But people have to figure out how to oppose these things, how to oppose open racism, how to oppose the destruction of the environment,” Shawn said. “I don’t believe in immigration quotas or in passports myself. I don’t really believe in the nation-state itself. Let people go where they need to go.”

But just as he finds Trump himself disconcerting — “his views are so malleable” — he also laments the lack of dialogue that takes place among people with opposing political views.

“I think it’s a very shocking fact that so many of us, such as myself, live in some kind of bubble where we don’t ever argue with people who think that, I don’t know, a big wall should be built on the Mexican border,” he said.

Shawn also has been a vocal critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. He serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that has endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and in a 2008 op-ed in The Nation wrote that “the future of the Jews looks increasingly dim” if the occupation continues.

Shawn predicts “the United States won’t support Israeli interests when it becomes too clear that it would conflict with American interests. … It seems that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and those who are even further to the right are trying to prevent a Palestinian state. … The sort of apartheid, one-state solution is inherently unstable. I don’t think that’s going to produce happiness for anybody.”

As he discussed the Israel-Palestine conflict, a young man approached the table, pointed at Shawn and said, “Inconceivable!” — Vizzini’s catchphrase from “The Princess Bride.” Shawn nodded and replied, “Oh, ha ha, that’s it!” and smiled graciously. He’s heard it repeated back to him countless times in the 30 years since the film’s release.

How does he make sense of this dual career — on the one hand, writing cerebral experimental plays like “Aunt Dan and Lemon” and “The Fever,” while also lending his lisping, nasal, New York-accented voice to characters in “Toy Story,” “The Incredibles” and “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”?

Shawn admits he’s confused at times. “I suppose my life would seem to some people to be actually at war with itself,” he said. He thinks of himself as a “low-level intellectual” and “a groupie of intellectuals.”

At an event last month at the New York Public Library, Shawn interviewed the linguist, philosopher and political theorist Noam Chomsky. In the publicity material for the evening, he said, “the implication was that a humorous minor celebrity was interviewing professor Chomsky, an actor who was funny and well-liked by some people.”

It made him wonder: “Did they invite me because I’m a well-qualified minor intellectual, or did they invite me because I was an amusing cartoon actor who would provide an interesting contrast to the usual interviewers?”

Shawn realizes that he always may be remembered as the actor who repeatedly blurts out “Inconceivable!” and does cartoon voices, even if he sees himself as a writer and playwright who somehow, strangely, found a side career in Hollywood.

“The public doesn’t know about me as a writer,” he said. “There are a couple playwrights who are well known. I’m not one of them.”

“The Designated Mourner” opens on May 11 at REDCAT in the Walt Disney Hall Complex and continues through May 21. All performances are at 8 p.m. except for two Sundays, May 14 and 21, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25-$55. For more information call (213) 237-2800 or visit