by Wallace Shawn
Acorn Theater , New York
Acorn Theater Web Site
The Fever by Wallace Shawn
Acorn Theater, New York
Through March 3, 2007
Wallace Shawn’s one character, one act drama is part personal confessional, part invitation to theatre goers to honestly examine their own economic beliefs and ethics, and part indictment of the largely unconsciously held beliefs of capitalism’s beneficiaries. The theme is from Marx filtered through Shawn’s potent, merciless moral self examination.
One man alone on a stage talking of economics and morality for an hour and a half, quoting Marx on the fetishism of commodities: this has to be deadly dull, right? But in fact it is absolutely fascinating, a riveting exploration of the assumptions of Shawn himself and of the kind of audience that attends an off-Broadway production in the New York City of 2007. These audience members look much like Shawn, live very much like him, earn similar amounts of money, and hold similar beliefs about what they have, what they deserve, and why. That these beliefs are not just self-serving but mostly hypocritical and morally indefensible is the point of The Fever.
Serious writers are encouraged to tell the truth about their subject, then they are encouraged to go back and tell the whole truth even if it makes them out as a less qualified moral arbiter than they would prefer. This is Shawn’s goal, and he pulls it off brilliantly. He echoes some of Peter Singer’s controversial views on what the moneyed should do with their money: live frugally and give most of it to the poor? Or just assume that the poor are poor because of some universal and proper law of the universe. How would it help them if we, the rich, became poor like them?
Shawn’s play is framed in an surprisingly clever manner. The audience is invited to arrive early and to gather on the stage to sip champagne with Wallace Shawn, to chat with the playwright, to chat with each other, to reinforce their identities as clever, well educated, affluent New York theatre goers, surely the deserving, able to chat with and be smiled at by a famous writer. Then, when the audience clears the stage and sits down, and Shawn performs his play; he ends, however, with no curtain call, and he exits the theatre up the same aisle everyone must use to go back into their comfortable lives. The message is subtle but clear: the playwright demonstrates that he has not just been speaking to us but for us. He doesn’t drop his message, smile, bow, and disappear backstage. He goes out with us, he is us.
Scott Elliott’s direction is simple and focused; the set by Derek McLane presents the sort of home environment one would expect Wallace Shawn to inhabit; Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design effectively reinforces the changes of mood in the play; and Bruce Odland’s almost subliminal sound design is perfect.