The Playgoer: REVIEW: The Fever

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Monday, February 26, 2007

REVIEW: The Fever

The Fever
by and starring Wallace Shawn
directed by Scott Elliott
presented by The New Group
at Theatre Row

In his monologue "The Fever," Wallace Shawn is simply a "man in chair." Not the nostalgic narrator of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a role Shawn could pull off in his typecast Hollywood nerdy-troll mode. But never has the contrast between that outer clown-Shawn (known to moviegoers) and the inner Marxist nihilist Shawn (known to anyone familiar with his writing) been more drastic or more foregrounded than in "The Fever." And Shawn's genius in the piece--with some assistance, probably, from director Scott Elliott--is in exploiting the tension between these two personas.

The piece is an old one and has been through many phases since Shawn began writing it in the 80s. (Here's where I out myself as such a Wally Shawn geek that I went, at 16, to hear him read excerpts from the then-work-in-progress at the 92nd St Y. On the same program? Durang reading "Laughing Wild.") According to Shawn, his original intention was to perform "The Fever" for small audiences at cocktail parties in rich people's homes. Which he did for a while. (In this and many ways, it's a fitting sequel to the real-life origins of "My Dinner with Andre.")

You see, "The Fever" is about that select breed of New Yorker--what Whit Stillman in "Metropolitan" memorably dubbed the UHB. ("Urban Haute Bourgeoisie," of course.) Shawn has a unique access to the UHB world thanks to being not only an intellectual celebrity in his own right, but he was born into it as the son of a legendary New Yorker editor. "The Fever" is his anti-love letter (not hating, but damning) to his class.

Shawn had a brief, more public run of "The Fever" Off Broadway in the 90s and then filed it away. It has since been performed by others here and there and been read with interest by students of Shawn's diverse oeuvre. Now that Scott Elliott's New Group has in effect rediscovered Shawn and made him practically a playwright-in-residence, we've been able to revisit his idiosyncratic work. (From highlights like "Aunt Dan and Lemon" to lowlights like the embarrassingly male-menopausal "The Music Teacher.") But "The Fever" is the ultimate Evening with Wally. The man himself channeling all the various and contradictory facets of his many identities--writer/performer, doomsayer/schlemiel, Marxist/aristocrat.

The monologue itself is framed by an episode where "The Traveller" finds himself alone, puking in the bathroom of his room in a strange hotel in an unnamed Central American country. He has taken this journey to prove something--to himself? to society?--about the need to reach out and understand the less fortunate. But all he gets in return for his good intentions are nightmares and nausea. This central moment launches The Traveller into numerous recollections of his privileged upbringing in an unnamed wealthy neighborhood of a major metropolis, as well as stories of class tension between members of his class and those who serve them--usually immigrants from ravaged countries like the one he ends up visiting.

In some of these ways, "The Fever" shows its age--certain cliches of Latin American juntas and revolutions (Nicaragua clearly looming in the background) hearken back to the good ol' cold war days of the 80s. I haven't examined the original script, but it doesn't seem like he's done any updating. (The Arab world would be a natural contemporary counterpart.) Still, even if The Traveller's portrait of the "Third World" seems out of Woody Allen's "Bananas" sometimes, we must remember that we're getting a skewed story, through the eyes of a somewhat befuddled and clueless UHB.

As director, Scott Elliott aggressively reinvents the piece for the stage--theatricalizing the idea of a drawing room after-dinner chat so that Shawn can slip in and out of that setting at will. Shawn may sit--Allistair Cooke style--in a leather arm-chair in front of a prop-bookcase. But it's an unreal sliver of reality amidst a mostly bare stage, and it at time disappears from view. Personally, I could have done without the "God voice" mic and dark lighting that descends whenever we're back in the hotel bathroom. Elliott is not a director known for subtlety. But it does all serve the piece, in theory.

I haven't mentioned yet the biggest "choice" of the production, which is the pre-show "cocktail party" simulation enacted on stage with the audience. Presumably a gesture toward the play's penthouse origins, it is a master stroke of audience "implication." Plus, it's just so refreshingly different in the theatre. You make your way up the crowded Theatre Row stairs to the top floor, get your ticket torn, and enter a fun party! As tasteful jazz-trio music plays over the sound system, the stage of what you thought was yet another "one-man show" is crowded with people chatting, drinking real champagne, and having--can you believe it--a good time. Shawn himself of course is there to mingle, and is swarmed for autographs and bon mots. Eventually and seamlessly, the catering staff takes away your glasses, people meander back to their seats, Wally signs a few more programs before a stage manager taps him on the shoulder. With the houselights still on, he begins haltingly and casually from the aisle, telling us how much the atmosphere of the party reminds him of Hugh Heffner's "Playboy After Dark" shows from a time gone by. (No doubt, a carefully chosen analogy.)

I wouldn't say this "prologue" succeeds in making the audience feel any more "guilty" over what is to follow. But it sure succeeds at making the play a lot less pretentious and sententious than it might otherwise feel. And the bond it forges between us and "Wally" comes back nicely to haunt us when he starts spewing more confrontational rhetoric at us an hour later.

I imagine the participatory nature of the pre-show also allows for each night to be different. At the performance I attended, for instance, it was impossible not to be affected by the presence on stage of Mike Nichols and Tom Stoppard sipping away, enjoying some shop-talk, a little island unto themselves as passerby's encircled, desperate for a soundbite. I myself didn't get much from them, but enjoyed watching Tom, as he was taking his seat by Mike, pulling Wally aside just before "curtain". What could one old playwright be asking another at this point. (Nichols, I guess, was the link between them--having directed "The Real Thing" on Broadway and starred in Shawn's "Designated Mourner" in London.)

At first I felt ashamed of continuing to sneak peeks at the dynamic duo to my left during the play, curious for any reactions. But by the end their presence actually heightened the dramatic tension in the room surprisingly well. There's a section toward the end of "The Fever" when The Traveller launches into a grating tirade on the need of the less fortunate to be patient. After dabbling in revolutionary sympathies for a while (even reading Marx's Kapital) he returns to his own class loyalties. We can't give you everything you want yet, he reasons to his imagined social inferiors, because then we'll have nothing. Gradual change, not revolution, he concludes will have to be the way. Just trust well intentioned middle of the road liberals like himself, and all will work out in the end.

What was hilarious to me about this that night is that "Gradual Change" is exactly the rallying cry of Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia"! There was poor Tom in the audience, being challenged for his 9-hour defense of a position now being savagely mocked on stage in a show 1/6 the length and 1% of the budget. What could the man have been thinking. He wasn't laughing, I'll tell you that.

But all seemed well at the end when Mike and Tom jovially cornered Wally in the foyer afterwards. (Shawn makes his exit as I assume he makes his entrance, down the aisle, to and from the "real world.") To see Shawn cozy up to the rich and powerful (in show business, the famous) was a good reminder of the many ambivalences in "The Fever." It may speak truth to power, but it, quite consciously, implicates itself, and us, as part of the problem in many ways.


Anonymous said...

Great, funny, perceptive writeup, and love the added context... which is hard to avoid given the style of presentation, but unbearably apt all the same. It IS shocking that Stoppard should spend all this intellectual energy (and Lincoln Center all those millions) to simply to uphold the status quo. A fact glanced upon in comments to my last post about Utopia:

Anonymous said...

1) man, you lucked out. getting to spy upon nichols and stoppard during "the fever" would be like having another mini-play to watch (e.g., the play's the thing wherein i'll catch the conscience of the king).

2) as a fellow wally shawn geek, i've got to say that i bristled a bit at the "nerdy-troll" description as it brought to mind john simon's review of "aunt dan and lemon": "With his grotesque looks and whiny voice, Shawn has had a run as a stage and screen clown."

now, if american idol could morph into that grease tryout reality show, perhaps that Am I Hot? show of a few years back could also find a theatrical equivalent. in any event, john simon should be one of the judges as he's been honing his hotness rating skills for years.

3) isherwood's review contends that if "the fever" were shorter (and presumably, the "conscience-baiting" were briefer), the audience could go home earlier and... "who knows? — a few audience members might put that half-hour to better use, studying or working for gradual improvements in the lives of others"

oy vey! dare to disconcert your audience and be chastised for cutting into their potential charity work(?!), but comfort your audience with subpar sitcom shenanigans (e.g., The Scene) and it's huzzahs all around. remember folks, theatrical satire is only effective so long as it toothless and resembles tv.

in the immortal words of bugs bunny," what a maroon!"