nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 30, 2007
A half-hour before curtain time at The Fever, audience members are invited to join writer-actor Wallace Shawn on stage for a pre-show glass of champagne. At the top of the show, Shawn himself makes the obligatory plea for viewers to silence their cell phones and refrain from taking photographs. At the end of the performance, Shawn takes his bow, steps off the front of stage and walks up the aisle, waving goodbye to the audience the entire way. Afterwards, he stands in the lobby available for comments and questions, or just a friendly "Good night" and "Thank you."
All of these are loose, welcoming touches that promise an evening of warm informality—an evening, as it turns out, that is not meant to be. Warmth and emotion are jarringly absent from The Fever, which quickly becomes a cold, heady exercise in white liberal guilt run amok. There's no doubt that Shawn's intellectualism is in full swing here, and that he deploys it in an attempt to tackle some relevant issues. But, there is a deadly sameness to the proceedings that blunts any impact The Fever might have.
Shawn plays a character known only as The Traveler. He sits down with a glass of wine and tells us about a trip he recently took, to an unnamed foreign country in the midst of a civil war. As the product of a privileged upbringing, The Traveler is shocked at the level of poverty the unnamed country's denizens live in—so much so that it leaves him shivering and vomiting in his hotel room. After returning home, he is left numb by the knowledge that his upper-class lifestyle is made possible by the misfortune of the world's poor, and finds himself wracked with guilt and shame.
And so, The Fever becomes one man's internal struggle to reconcile the warring sides of himself. On one hand, he recognizes the necessity of the haves making sacrifices for the betterment of the have-nots. But on the other hand, The Traveler doesn't want to give up any part of his cushy lifestyle to make that happen. Along the way, he comes out against "the fetishism of commodities," and vacillates between wanting to share the world's wealth more equitably and eliminating the poor altogether.
More than anything else, though, The Traveler flagellates himself for playing a part in keeping the underprivileged under the economic thumb of the rich and powerful. He realizes that his morning coffee is made from beans harvested by workers making close to no cents an hour, but that's not enough to make him give it up.
The themes and ideas at work in The Fever are essential ones, crucial to mankind's everyday life and future progress. But, they are rendered static and anemic by the play's indecisive protagonist. No doubt Shawn uses The Traveler's fickleness as a means to make the audience question their own beliefs and values, but this device eventually bogs The Fever down in a repetitive loop that conveys no new information. Shawn states The Traveler's position very early on, and leaves his play nowhere to go.
The lack of character development leaves Shawn the actor nowhere to go, as well. Unable to present some sort of solution to his dilemma, The Traveler comes across as a weird crank, the kind who corners people at parties with his rhetoric. Director Scott Elliott inexplicably keeps Shawn anchored in a chair for almost the duration of the play (which makes Derek McLane's living room set distracting and pointless: why have a set if you're not going to use it?), failing to activate the text or inject any sort of physical dynamism into it. Jennifer Tipton's lighting is equally baffling. Sometimes Shawn is so dimly illuminated he can barely be seen; other times the house lights are brought up halfway so that the audience is visible. What it all means, though, I couldn't tell you.
"We cannot escape from our connection to the poor," The Traveler says at one point. True, but we don't need him to tell us that. For a world that has watched the poor get ravaged by AIDS in Africa, slaughtered in Darfur, and underserved by government aid in New Orleans since the time The Fever was first written, this is not news. What's needed now is a solution. Some people look to art to help them find one. If Shawn can't do that for the audience—and I think he pretty much doesn't in The Fever—then he ought to get out of his chair and leave the room.