It was a bright spring day, and I was coming out the glass doors of my office building in the central village when I suddenly felt as though I had walked into a Woody Allen movie. Through the glass of the open door, I saw playwright, actor and artist Wallace Shawn coming down the street carrying a large, heavy duffel bag containing some odd-shaped things that looked like bowling pins.
It was 1997 and I had just seen The Designated Mourner, Mike Nichols’ film of Shawn’s year-old play first performed at the Royal National Theater, London. I was so surprised I nearly struck him with the door and so he looked up and caught my eye. I paused there in the middle of the sidewalk and just stared at him and he gave me a little smile as he continued down the block.
I came to learn later that the famously private Shawn often made his way about the island on foot carrying a heavy bag – as a kind of improvisational exercise perhaps, but described in one article as an eccentricity.
I told this anecdote over and again in my New York life until the summer of 2000 when it became appended, after I read a tiny theater listing in The Village Voice:
The Designated Mourner
Wallace Shawn’s wonderfully nasty and clever drama returns to the New York stage. This three character piece examines the aftermath of a war in an unnamed country in which notions about high and low culture have murderous consequences. In this incarnation, Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg. Andre Gregory directs. 21 South William Street, 21 South William,532-8887 (Soloski)
Louis Malle, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn were at the heart of one of the most important movements in theater in New York in the latter half of the twentieth century. They took responsibility for the barbaric provincialism of the North and West more than nearly any white artists in the field and created storytelling of examined intellectual tenor.
On the summer solstice of the year 2000, I took the 6 train down to Wall Street and walked to an old, crumbly house at 21 South William, at the base of the World Trade Center Towers. I was sitting on the warm stone steps of the little house – still in sunlight on the longest day of the year – when I looked up to see a small, slowly moving figure walking toward me. It was Wallace Shawn. He wore dark clothes and a light, thin scarf around his neck that he was worrying at a little as he walked. He seemed to be in a placid, meditative, pre-performance state. I was awaiting a companion and was the only person sitting outside the small theater when he arrived.
He nodded and smiled as he approached. I stood and quickly congratulated him saying I felt The Designated Mourner was one of the most important American plays of the era. He smiled, thanked me and asked if I had a seat. I told him I hadn’t yet, but hoped to by waiting list or if not, then at another performance that summer. He said he hoped so, too and went inside.
The show was sold out and when my friend arrived we went in to add our names to the waiting list – we were numbers 7 and 8. Ten minutes before curtain the stage manager came down a set of small stairs into the foyer to announce there were 6 seats available. There was a group of three atop the waitlist and two couples ahead of us and I assumed at that moment we weren’t going to be seeing the play that night but suddenly, there was some discussion at the stage manager’s podium.
The couple ahead of us was trying to decide if they wanted to be split-up for the evening as there was only one seat left after the first five guests were seated. They took what felt like an interminably long time to decide – curtain time had passed. Finally, they agreed they would go to an early dinner rather than be split up and gave up the remaining seat. My close friend Daniel encouraged me to go take it. I paid the $10 fee and ran up the stairs toward the performance space.
The stairwell and indeed the whole house was dark save for a line of yellow electric lamps with yellow bulbs meant to guide the audience to the room in which the performance was to begin. A wonderful old and musty smell hung in the air. I followed the lights slowly until my eyes adjusted and I had some grasp of which floor they were headed toward and then ran the last flight in order to get to the performance which I was sure had begun. At the top of the stairs I nearly ran into Wallace Shawn who was standing, holding a chair and waiting.
“Oh good,” he said, “You made it.”
He carried the chair to a place at the edge of the audience, set it down, gestured for me to sit and then made his way to the carefully lit back of the room that was the performance area. There was no stage between audience and performer, just a subtle line on the floor, created from where the chairs ended and the lighting began.
Shawn then turned and faced the audience. The lights were dimmed quickly and he struck a match and lit a small piece of paper on fire which floated as it turned into ash, slowly up to the ceiling, “I” he recited, “am the designated mourner.”