Shawn now plays Ben, a doctor who has invented a genetically modified nutrient called Grain No. 1. When fed to animals, Grain No. 1 causes them to eat voraciously and reproduce constantly, thus ending the world’s food shortage. But as the effects of this change move up the food chain, Grain No. 1 not only unlocks a “molecular inhibition” with devastating digestive consequences, it unlocks a pandemic of sexual inhibition as well.
Though “Grasses” at first seems like a cautionary tale about food science and ecological end times, most of its considerable length — like “The Designated Mourner,” it is broken into six segments of about 30 minutes each — is devoted to that sexual unloosening. Ben’s beloved penis now becomes an almost autonomous creature, and its adventures a kind of Rabelaisian picaresque. These adventures involve a harem including not only his wife, Cerise (Julie Hagerty), his lover Robin (Jennifer Tilly) and another lover, Rose (Emily Cass McDonnell), but also a fantastical, queenly cat named Blanche.
Yes, Shawn goes there. And goes there.
When I saw the New York premiere of “Grasses” at the Public Theater in 2013, I found its prurience and misogyny taxing, even though both were deployed satirically. With almost no action — also like “The Designated Mourner,” the play proceeds as a lecture or reminiscence, with occasional illustrative scenelets — it depends entirely on delivery, which onstage became monotonous. However high minded, the pornographic passages, like pornography generally, quickly paled, and the larger story, contrary to the play’s theme, seemed underfed.
Either the podcast is a vast improvement or the world has sunk so much closer to the level of Shawn’s dystopic fantasy that I’m now forced to take it more seriously. In any case, “Grasses,” as well as “The Designated Mourner,” are beautifully rethought for the ear by the director (and longtime Shawn collaborator) André Gregory. The music and sound by Bruce Odland serve both to establish the surreally foreboding mood and to keep you moored in the otherwise drifting timescape of the narratives. Even the plays’ length is turned to good effect in a format that allows you to serialize the experience.
It helps that the actors — all of whom performed their roles in earlier New York productions — have voices of uncommon timbre and distinctiveness. Paradoxically, you know better who’s who without seeing them than you ever did onstage. Ben’s women are especially terrifying, whether flirting or purring or, eventually, whooping like maenads. They are ids run wild in a society losing its mind.
Awful as that is, the men played by Shawn are ultimately more dangerous. Their adenoidal squeak and chuckly delivery disguise both the stripping away of human culture and the ineffectuality of that culture that are his chief themes.
His delivery is crucial. When Mike Nichols played Jack in David Hare’s 1997 film of “The Designated Mourner,” his suave cosmopolitanism made him dangerous from the start. But Shawn’s infernally ingratiating style suggests that true danger comes from not seeing it until it’s too late. His world doesn’t end with a bang or even a whimper but with an anecdote, cheerfully delivered. He may be an apologist for the worst of humanity’s outrages, but he’s also mounting your leg: a beagle of the apocalypse.
The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors
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