There is a bit of cheeky self-awareness that permeates the theatrical event in The Fever. The monologue play, delivered by Wallace Shawn, asks how a sensitive person can comfortably cope in a world of economic inequity. If you’re not born in the third world, and if you’re not living in a war torn country, how can you sit by enjoying bon bons and chardonnay?
But the night I saw The Fever, champagne was served. Ushers gently directed ticket holders to partake in a glass of bubbly on stage. The friend who I brought turned to me with raised eyebrows and said, “fancy.” And indeed it was. Most audience members were well dressed, appeared over sixty, pudgy and with graying hair, which wasn’t surprising considering the show is being performed at the Acorn theatre on 42nd street—tickets selling upwards of $50 a pop. After mingling on stage the crowd slowly strolled to its cozy seats, the champagne still sparkling as it settled into our stomachs. I over heard someone remark, “Isn’t this lovely?” Yes, I mused. So classy, so civilized.
So when Shawn begins his piece, the house lights still up, it is a bit surprising. The quiet chatter stops when we spot an assistant adjusting Shawn’s tie. Shawn unassumingly stands at the side of the stage and, in that ever so distinct voice of his, the one made famous in movies like The Princess Bride and Clueless, explains he won’t be wasting time walking or running onto his set as they do in other plays. Is he acting yet or just talking to us? Another joke, more chuckles. Originally when Shawn performed The Fever, it was done for private audiences in his friends’ apartments. Perhaps Shawn wants to evoke that convivial atmosphere? He’s cleverly lulled us into a jovial mood with the champagne, the innocuous jokes, the familiar lighting. (Shawn himself is drinking what appears to be red wine.) He hops onto the set, which is bare except for a narrow living room in the center. The lights drop, Shawn shifts his voice to a deeper register.
“I’m traveling—and I wake up suddenly in the silence before dawn in a strange hotel room, in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken, and I’m shaking and shivering,” Shawn, as narrator, growls. “When you’re traveling somewhere and you wake up in a strange place—don’t you feel frightened?” But much of Shawn’s monologue comes off as funny. When not talking about his feverish state in an unknown land, the narrator swings back to simpler times with observations on life back home. He recalls, “My friends and I were the delicate, precious, breakable children, and we always knew it. We knew it because of the way we were wrapped—because of the soft underwear laid out on our beds, soft socks to protect our feet.” And the audience laughs¬—but for a bit too long. Was everyone listening given soft socks and underwear as a child? Is the loud woman behind me laughing in recognition?
Later, when the narrator talks about an anonymous gift he receives, Capital by Karl Marx, there is more prolonged laughter. The narrator describes his experience reading it in bed; “the beginning was impenetrable, I couldn’t understand it.” Is anyone here a communist? I wonder. I suspect that, when The Fever was first performed, clouds of Communism, McCarthyism, and the Cold War still hung fresh in peoples minds. Perhaps there was more danger in Shawn’s words. Now they strike me as ironic and indulgent. He goes on to juxtapose familiar New York scenes (dinner parties, cultural events, winter nights on deserted streets) with scenes from the “poor country,” (the awful hotel, a guerrilla he meets). At one point he asks, “Have you ever had any friends who were poor? See, I think that’s an idea a lot of people have: ‘Why shouldn’t I have some friends who are poor?’” The audience laughs. Have they wondered the same thing? Are they laughing in anticipation of what he is about to say? “I’ve pictured it so often, like a dream that comes again and again,” Shawn says. “There’ve been so many people—people who work at menial jobs whom I’ve seen every day—people who’ve caught my eye, talked to me, and I’ve thought, How nice, It’s nice, If only—and I’ve imagined it—but then what I imagine always ends so badly.” I cannot help but feel offended. I’m young! I work at a non-profit! I didn’t pay $50 to see this production! I think. Okay, I reason, maybe I’m not poor poor but I often feel poor. The narrator continues his description of what he imagines an evening with a poor couple to be. Their apartment would be too small; the meat would have too much grease and somewhere, far off, a baby would be crying. This description sends the audience into fits of giggles.
We tend to think of laughter as liberating or subversive, and the issues about which Shawn speaks—namely, class and the ways in which the flotsam and jetsam of our collective lifestyle are produced and distributed—are surely taboo in our society. But this laughter seems mostly to be bolstering the status quo. So what is Shawn’s aim?
He’s not finished yet. “Poor countries are beautiful. Poor people are beautiful. It’s a wonderful feeling to have money in a country where most people are poor, to ride in a taxi through horrible slums.” He describes a beautiful beggar and says, “There’s money in your purse—you’ll give her some of it. And a voice says—Why not all of it? Why not give her all that you have? Be careful, that’s a question that could poison your life. Your love of beauty could actually kill you.” Here we arrive at the ultimate problem. Who would give up everything they had for equality’s sake? The audience, by the looks of them masters and mistresses of the universe, know this. They’re no fools. “It’s a question that could poison your life.” Laughter at the overwhelming injustice of the system seems like a sane response, but isn’t that laughter dreadfully weak? My stomach turns, I’m uncomfortable. Perhaps this is what Shawn wanted: to make everyone feel uneasy with the gleeful acknowledgment that our world is so unfair. I hope everyone is feeling queasy about this, but ultimately Shawn preaches to a bunch of white, wealthy, aesthetes. And to me. What does he want us to do about inequity? Perhaps that is the question we need to ask all of ourselves. Perhaps pondering the question is enough.
The Fever, written and performed by Wallace Shawn, directed by Scott Elliott, produced by The New Group, runs at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row through March 3rd. Show times: Mon-Fri at 8pm, Sun at 2pm. For tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com For more info: www.thenewgroup.org
Despite popular misconception, Eliza Bent is neither a vegetarian nor a Park Slope resident. She eats meat and lives in Soho and goes to school for playwriting at Brooklyn College. In her spare time, she's an editor at American Theatre magazine.