Pat O'Brien performs "Underneath the Lintel" in the 2013 Capital Fringe. His show this year is "The Fever." (Paul Gillis)
Pat O'Brien performs "Underneath the Lintel" in the 2013 Capital Fringe. His show this year is "The Fever." (Paul Gillis)

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Goethe Institut – Main Stage

Remaining Performances:

Thursday, July 24, 10 p.m.

Friday, July 25, 6 p.m.

They Say: An affluent traveler to a poor country is leveled by a nightmarish but enlightening fever that will challenge the consciences of the most liberal of theatre-goers. Was Marx right? Featuring Pat O’Brien from last year’s Fringe hit, Underneath the Lintel.

Chris’ Take: Pat O’Brien’s solo performance of Glen Berger’s play Under the Lintel was one of the most satisfying entires in last year’s Capital Fringe. For his follow-up, he’s chosen a far more daunting and less pleasurable piece of material, a play that’s really more of a sermon, even when delivered by an actor with a manner as warm an convivial as O’Brien’s.

Or Wallace Shawn’s. Shawn, a prolific actor and playwright who will probably go to his grave being remembered as the guy who kept shouting “Inconceivable!” in The Princess Bride, started workshopping this lecture about the intrinsic value of objects and the fundamental economic injustice of our world for private audiences around 1990. By the time of his Acorn Theatre production in 2007, he was inviting the audience to arrive half an hour early and sip champagne with him onstage. But as the noted drama critic Admiral Ackbar once observed, “It’s a trap!” Once the show proper began, the audience was subject to a matter-of-fact explanation of how their first-world lifestyles steal bread from other peoples’ mouths.

The story, such as it is, is that of an unnamed traveler from a unnamed prosperous country visiting an unnamed poor one that’s been wracked by civil war. Afflicted by a debilitating fever in his roach-infested hotel room, he suffers a dark night of the soul that boils away the protective membrane of hypocrisy that allows him to ignore the nagging of his conscience when he passes beggars on the street.

“I don’t have any friends who are poor,” he admits to himself. Also: “If money is bid to produce food for hungry children, certain operas will not be performed,” a bitter pill for this cultivated lover of art and beauty to swallow.  Later, he yearns to put down “his burden of lies” about how his station in the world has somehow been determined by his own initiative and worthiness rather than sheer, dumb luck.

Well. The whole thing feels less like a luxury item when it’s a Fringe production with no champagne and no set; just a black leather chair in front of a heavy velvet curtain. It still is, of course. It’s a virtual certainty that no one who attends O’Brien’s compressed, four-shows-in-four-nights run will have known what it is to live in squalor. But so what? It’s a question the show anticipates, acknowledging that the liberal consciences of recycling, NPR-listening, Fair Trade coffee-drinking first worlders do not improve the lot of the poor in any way.

For much of the show, O’Brien — that is, the narrator — adopts the persona of a Have delivering a condescending rationale to the Have Nots about why we won’t be giving them a bigger piece of the pie. For all of O’Brien’s considerable empathy and skill, he can’t make this feel the least bit surprising or even, just, real. Tilda Swinton’s Thatcheresque character Mason in the currently-in-release allegorical sci-fi film Snowpiercer is a far more imaginative and convincing expression of the same idea; a rich person who tells poor ones they should know their place and be grateful. Actually, that’s why sci-fi critiques like Snowpiercer or The Hunger Games are so popular. We all know what Shawn is saying here is true, but none of us wants to hear it.

That’s where The Fever left me, a guy who once voted for a Green Party Presidential candidate : Longing for the subtlety of Snowpiercer.

See it if: You sense you’re just a few sharp elbows away from a profound moral awakening.

Skip it if: Your bleeding heart liberal credentials are already in order, or you require no spoonful of sugar with your bucketful of medicine, or you believe you’ve earned any advantages you enjoy in life and no actor is going to change your mind.

Underneath the Lintel photo © 2013 Paul Gillis