EmptyAcorn Theatre, New York
Through March 3
As anyone who saw the classic 1981 film "My Dinner With Andre" knows, Wallace Shawn is an engaging conversationalist. Hearing him yammer on about sundry topics in his almost comical voice is a source of entertainment in and of itself.
That's probably why a revival of "The Fever," a 100-minute monologue about liberal guilt that Shawn penned in 1991, succeeds so nicely. Playing an anonymous narrator dubbed the Traveler, Shawn employs his unique form of charisma to draw viewers in from the get-go.
Actually, he draws viewers in before the play even starts. In a half-hour preshow, Shawn invites the audience onstage for a glass of complimentary champagne and chitchat. All also are free to examine the set: a simply furnished apartment with a bookcase containing works like Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd" and a table on which a New York Times headline reads: "Bush Pressing Modest Agenda; Insists U.S. Must Not Fail in Iraq." Are these clues to the hero's background? One can only surmise.
As the lights dim, Shawn sinks into a comfy chair -- and into character. Although the Traveler is safely in his own abode, he reflects back on a nightmarish visit to an unnamed country where he witnessed torture, mutilation, rape and murder.
But his tales aren't all atrocity-based. What develops is a stream-of-consciousness rant that segues from childhood memories to feelings on Marxism to the taste of ice cream in Third World locales to critiquing Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" to the joys of room service. And so it goes, with many of the lines setting up sharp contrasts wherein humor and horror intermingle.
What also develops is a sly ribbing of liberals' politically correct ways, as when the Traveler equates do-gooders' advocating for the rights of lobsters with a poverty-stricken guerrilla fighter who will sacrifice his life. What becomes clear is that all these memories have led to the titular fever -- a condition of having witnessed one too many scenes of "Dante's Inferno" in the flesh.
Needless to say, this could become soporific in the wrong hands. That's where Shawn's strengths as an actor come in. He carefully modulates his voice among whispery reveries, slightly comic inflections and the sound of palpable fright. In addition, Shawn occasionally wanders to the lip of the stage to stare directly into viewers' faces or sips contentedly from a glass of red wine while collecting thoughts.
Veteran director Scott Elliott also does his part to keep audiences' minds from wandering, as when using lighting to create dramatic mood shifts or make the stage appear to change shape. For long sequences, the theater is in near-total darkness, then the house lights amp up to create an almost sunny ambiance, then it's back to a single spot on Shawn's face. The technique proves simple but effective.
But the real power comes from the words. Shawn's dialogue is vividly descriptive without ever seeming forced or metaphor-heavy. And while he makes countless points about a wealth of issues, the result is never preachy or didactic.
Shawn also earns commendation for memorizing an evening's worth of lines, many of which don't follow each other with seeming logic. The fact that Shawn, now 63, pulls it off with such ease is a trick worthy of David Copperfield.
Clearly, Shawn is a man who has a lot to say. And as "The Fever" proves, he effectively says it as an actor, a playwright and even as a champagne-serving host.
Presented by the New Group
Playwright: Wallace Shawn
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Eric Becker
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designer: Bruce Odland
The Traveler: Wallace Shawn