Wallace Shawn's one-man show "The Fever" sifts through political philosophy and high culture, but finds no answers. Shawn's Traveler, a self-declared unreliable narrator, is the best ally we've got for the trip.
Reviewed by Ellen Wernecke
There were several moments during "The Fever," Wallace Shawn's one-man play recently re-mounted by The New Group, where I knew for sure that I didn't want to go where it was going. Our narrator, known as The Traveler according to Shawn's introduction, wakes up in a state of disarray and crawls to the toilet in the dark to vomit. Half an hour later he's referencing Freud, without bothering to specify whether he's at a dinner party exclaiming over his fork or being kicked by a prison guard.
The answer, of course, is in both places at once. The Traveler examines his life, focused on "Chapter Two: All The Rest," starting with his classical-music-set childhood of staying out of neighborhoods "where people collect... like water in drains." Having heard the rumblings of a mysterious revolution in a far-off country, he finds it only natural that someone has left a volume of Marx on his doorstep for him to leaf through naked in bed -- and before you can say "opiate of the masses" he's in that never-named country, waxing poetic on the quality of his hotel.
Having seen what he saw, The Traveler is a changed man, unable to laugh or enjoy his former life. "I wasn't me. I wasn't there to be embraced... My laugh was like a tight little cough." The titular illness leads him to fly back and forth between defending his old lifestyle with haughty eyes and admitting that perhaps there needs to be a new system under which we all live. He's formulated his own middle path and, Buddha-ish, attempts to explain it to us -- but instead he ricochets between outpourings of compassion for the have-nots, and dismissal of them as "the destroyers."
"The Fever" rides on Shawn's shoulders and, as a whole piece, is unimaginable without him. (At one point he gives the words "Communists" the most subtle, shaded air quotes I have ever heard, which seemed to represent both cautious hope and supercilious disdain.) But the audience is made complicit with the help of the house lights, which go up without a textual warning and give viewers the sense that Shawn is scrutinizing them as well as himself. It's his mea culpa on one hand and his non serviam with the other, but he's holding them out to us. The essential ambiguity of the piece is not that The Traveler can't accept that people hate them; the ambiguity is in the options that leaves us.
"Your life is the life of someone who's gotten away with something," Shawn declares near the end of "The Fever." It's not a Brechtian assault, but it catches us in the act of getting away, too.
The Acorn, Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $51.25
Performances*: Monday-Saturday 8pm, Sunday 2pm
(*Come 30 minutes before the show to sip champagne with Wallace Shawn)
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.