Brain Drain 

Intellectuals are prey without a prayer in Designated Mourner.

There's an Italian liqueur called grappa, a clear, brandy-like drink so powerful that, when you get the real homemade stuff, it almost seems to vaporize on your tongue. This is not an aperitif for those who lap up Baileys and cream.

The plays by Wallace Shawn are the theatrical equivalent of grappa, with scripts that distill the essence of arguments about morality and self-awareness into poetically compressed streams of thought. While they're not suited to everyone's taste, those who relish the interplay of words and ideas will be intoxicated by Shawn's The Designated Mourner, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. This largely static play centers on three talking heads who move only incidentally (think of Shawn's film, My Dinner With Andre), but whose minds are feverishly at work.

Set in an unnamed country where the government is hostile to "people who read John Donne," meaning intellectuals of any stripe, Jack is a recovering member of the inner circle of the educated. He shares the stage with his ex-wife Judy and her father Howard, a renowned poet and progressive activist in public, but a raging pain in the ass at home. The unseen "dirt eaters" in the culture, those lowbrows who don't read and are proud of it, have taken over the government and are showing their dislike for the brainy bunch in street demonstrations.

Jack, a self-effacing and tragically humorous fellow who isn't much good at anything (doesn't understand poetry, isn't good in bed), decides to desert the sinking ship of those who adore books and revere art. Thus he avoids the fate of many friends, who are eventually arrested and either die in prison or are executed by the state. These ghastly events are never seen and mentioned only in passing, as Jack obsesses about his disconnection with his body and the tumultuous world around him.

One of the undeniable pleasures in this production is the language the playwright uses to spin his static tale of dread. Some of the lines are humorous, as when Jack relates his inability to attain an erection with a woman: "My dick lay limply in my pants like a little lunch packed by Mother." Other phrases, such as his description of a cool nighttime stroll on the beach as "walking in black ice cream," are luxuriantly evocative.

As Jack, Randy Rollison looks like a squinty-eyed mechanical engineer in his short-sleeved shirt and dorky tucked-in sweater vest, and he masterfully conveys the impotent rage of this man, who considers the thoughts and memories that make up his very self as a random collection of bric-a-brac, signifying less than nothing. Jill Levin and Robert J. Williams are effective as Judy and Howard, the committed intellectuals who pay the ultimate price for their highbrow tastes.

Director Jyana S. Gregory employs the handsome production design by Miriam Nilofa Crowe (lush sitting room in act one, barren gray patio in act two) and Rollison's emotionally vacant yet oddly engaging performance to do justice to Shawn's flights of imagery. And when Jack finally notes, "We were all calmer without those never-jangling friends around," the cold strikes bone-deep.

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