Wallace Shawn wrote and performed two plays this summer and fall: The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. I saw Grasses in New York City at the end of its run. Would that I had seen the former. Going strong at age 70, Shawn’s distinctive face and voice are well known to younger audiences in The Princess Bride and to his contemporaries in My Dinner With Andre. A self-described intellectual, he demonstrated little of that quality, in my opinion, in Grasses. He performed the play, with Julie Hagerty (Airplane, although this was anything but comedy), Jennifer Tilly, and Emily Cass McDonnell, all accomplished actors.
Shawn, sometimes at a podium, and the others narrate a past tense story, in lieu of action. Shawn’s rhetorical questions delivered to the spectators and Hagerty’s entrance into the audience to engage a member in the first row add to the sense that we were intimately involved in the conversation. The house lights, left on in the audience, enhance this sense.
There are some amusing moments in the first of three one-hour acts when Shawn reads from his voluminous volume of a memoir and sets the premise of his having invented a grain that feeds the world, but ultimately kills people and animals. The few narratives that deal with Shawn’s intellectual philosophy seem forced and expository and are quickly forgotten.
The second act starts out well enough with risqué narrative by Shawn’s character and the ladies about various sexual exploits, but soon becomes a repetition of an old man’s sexual reminiscing—what you might expect from an aged Hugh Hefner, complete with the black pajamas and robe. The tales, which approach braggadocio, put one in mind of old Playboy Magazine “letters to the editor” recounting unlikely sexual encounters, in this case including cats as participants. The difference is these narratives lack the arousing sexuality of Playboy Letters and become tedium by the end of the act, when Shawn announces that refreshments are available in the lobby. By then his macabre description of eating mice heads provided by the cats has instilled a healthy skepticism in the audience, who approach the nut cups, hard-boiled eggs, chocolates, and cranberry juice cautiously.
In the third act we learn that Shawn’s character is named Ben, is attempting to write a book, presumably his memoir, and is ill, apparently from consuming the ingredients of his own invention. (The Frankenstein effect of destruction by one’s own creation while playing God with Mother Nature.) In the last sentence or two we learn that Ben decided that death really isn’t so bad after all. An aspiring writer attempting to introduce these new plot elements at the end of a story would be shredded by his critique group. Mr. Shawn’s long career and success probably make it innovative, but it still seemed like an after-thought to this theatergoer. Grasses of a Thousand Colors (directed by Andre Gregory) was, for me, My Dinner With Andre on acid, but without the interesting parts.