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For an evening that chronicles a slowly dawning spiritual agony—and begins with a man retching into a toilet—Wallace Shawn’s The Fever manages to be awfully entertaining. Seldom has liberal guilt been articulated so brightly or excoriated so elegantly.
Perhaps that’s why director Robert McNamara brings up the lights (in a deliberately steamy theater) to the jaunty strains of Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot,” and has Christopher Henley pour a glass of water over his own head before he speaks a word of the intricately argued self-doubt that will occupy him for the play’s 100 minutes. Shawn wrote The Fever as a monologue to be delivered conversationally in friends’ living rooms, deliberately conflating his own public persona with that of the character, much as he did when writing himself into the screenplay for My Dinner With Andre. If the stage business McNamara has devised qualifies as unnecessary window dressing, it sets an appropriate, whistling-in-the-graveyard tone for a darkly comic play that can’t help registering differently today than it did at its 1990 debut.
Back then, at the tail end of the Reagan era, Shawn’s philosophically unremarkable observation that a good life lived in a shining city on a hill required that a less good life be enjoyed by people in surrounding valleys sounded discordant and cranky to some theatergoers. But in 2004, we’ve had it forcibly brought home that the valley dwellers resent the disparity, and what the New York Times memorably dismissed as “an orgy of self-flagellation that even Woody Allen might find a bit rich” today sounds prescient and common-sensical.
Which means it doesn’t feel remotely wrong for the Scena Theatre to present the play’s arguments with more than a bit of theatrical panache. Shawn—who is both a successful Hollywood actor and a member of New York’s literary elite (he’s the son of longtime New Yorker Editor William Shawn)—originally sat in a chair all evening speaking quietly of Third World executions and childhood birthday parties; Henley is more outwardly engaging and active. He roams the stage as he puzzles out Marxist notions of “commodity fetishism,” takes small steps sideways while recalling a lengthy wall filled with photos of dead activists, licks his lips at the memory of a feast, and occasionally appears blindsided by ideas. A beggar woman’s request for pocket change, for instance, suggests a corollary—“Why not give her all you have?”—that leaves him looking positively poleaxed, inspiring a 10-minute bout of self-recrimination.
If this questioning, querulous character can be annoyingly self-absorbed at times, he is more often ingratiating. When he describes his fondness for Beethoven, books, and brightly wrapped Christmas presents, it’s easy to identify with him. And it’s equally easy to chart in his consumerist eyes the dawning comprehension that liking “warmth, love, and nice plates” while “opposing cruelty and violence” doesn’t make him a decent person. “If what I have is just,” he posits, in a faint panic, “then what the beggar has is also just.” But that can’t be. Or at any rate, it can’t be right. And so, on goes his internal debate.
This unnamed, increasingly feverish character is in some ways an outgrowth of the similarly loquacious autobiographical figure Shawn played in My Dinner With Andre. Shawn co-wrote the film with co-star Andre Gregory in 1981 at the very outset of the Me Decade to which The Fever seems such an apt coda, giving himself the part of a somewhat less developed navel gazer who declares himself to be “really quite self-satisfied.” The character, who’s named Wally, continues: “I just have no complaint about myself. I mean—let’s face it—there’s a whole enormous world out there that I just don’t ever think about. I certainly don’t take responsibility for how I’ve lived in that world. I mean, if I were actually to confront the fact that I’m sharing the stage with this starving person from Africa somewhere—well, I wouldn’t feel so great about myself, so naturally I just blot all those people out of my perception.”
A decade later, Shawn expanded that under-a-minute cinematic passage into a complex moral debate—one that is, another decade along, still intellectually distressing and theatrically riveting. Scena’s production, set in the living-room-sized space envisioned by its author, heightens the script’s moods with lighting effects by Marianne Meadows that cast warm glows and ominous shadows, and let that toilet light up from within—minimalist enhancements to a script with, sadly, as much to say today as when it was first performed for the author’s friends.CP