Thankfully, The Fever is not a “bring your own bottle” affair. The New Group’s production of Wallace Shawn’s latest show, at the Acorn Theatre, begins with a reception with Shawn on the stage where free champagne is provided. The thoughtfulness of this gesture is reason enough to arrive 30 minutes early for the show; the 85 minutes of The Fever following the reception are reason enough to partake as liberally as possible of The New Group’s pre-show hospitality.
Unless you’re the scrawniest of 98-pound weaklings, the half-flute of bubbly they provide you will probably not get you tipsy enough to find The Fever as trenchant as it already thinks it is, or as entertaining as it wants to be. Starring Shawn and directed by Scott Elliott, this is a show that aims to tackle materialism through materialism, assailing the audience with the very weapons used to lure them into the theater. But without a goal in sight, let alone a solid anchor for the social consciousness too blatant to merely wear on its sleeve, it feels like little more like an adolescent polemic.
This is rather surprising, as The New Group’s revival of Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon some three years ago reaffirmed Shawn’s oft-ignored status as a singularly textured political playwright. That production’s scorching tracing of the pathology of hate was both timeless and timely, casting indictments about the birthing and nourishing of evil one moment and invigorating you the next with the realization that hatred can indeed make a great deal of sense. But though he explores similar themes in The Fever, focusing primarily on what Karl Marx called the “fetishism of commodities,” to say this play and production are less gripping would be a grand understatement.
Structured as a kind of fireside chat, with Shawn seated for almost all the evening in a chair on Derek McLane’s stylish living-room set, this play tries to cast itself an expansive examination of military and economic imperialism run amok, but never moves much farther from the chair than Shawn does. Where Aunt Dan and Lemon revels in subtlety, never revealing its full hand until the moment the final curtain falls, it’s clear from the beginning that this play cannot end until its central character has made a prescribed journey to personal understanding that can envelop the audience in its unquestionable correctness.
The character is known only as The Traveler, and he’s the one perched in the chair and relating the story of how he came to realize that life is about more than possessions and small-scale feelings, and that suffering exists in ways well-to-do Americans (like himself) can’t comprehend. His eventual journey to a country tearing itself apart with revolution further opens his eyes to the real troubles lurking both outside and inside our borders, and slowly we begin to feel the presence of another: a privileged man in that war-torn country who’s suffering at the hands of the poor he and his ancestors spent their entire life disenfranchising.
The Traveler’s struggles to come to terms with his own role in propagating the class-driven juggernaut rending half the world leads the two men to merge into a single spirit, who paint for us the dangers of uneven wealth distribution: In the end, everyone perishes. Karl Marx, no doubt, would applaud. But with nothing inventive in the presentation, the evening is at best an exercise in pretentious preachiness. The Traveler’s existence is painted in broad, shallow strokes that underscore his disconnectedness to humanity, as if he were sleepwalking through life: Nothing is ever described in detail when vagaries will suffice, establishing for us The Traveler’s functionally fictional world.
Jennifer Tipton’s ethereal lighting is instrumental in guiding us through the darkest corners of The Traveler’s mind and for instantly setting the time and place, but nothing else in the design or especially Elliott’s direction suggests much effort was expended to make this more than a static, matter-of-fact experience. Shawn’s distinctively ebullient personality is swallowed up in the darkness of the characters he plays, but is never satisfactorily replaced: Much of his acting, in physicality and voice as well as emotions, suggest he’s trying to win a ghost-story-telling contest, not narrate (let alone encourage) a completely new concept of human behavior.
The ultimate point of all this might be to remind us that the theatre (like the capitalistic world?) rests on a foundation no stronger than papier-mâché, and that nothing at all may be taken at face value. Shawn even suggests as much in the (apparently) unscripted connecting material between the champagne reception and the play proper, a lengthy analysis of human behavior relating to the theatre that not only functions as a cell-phone announcement but explains (or excuses?) the conventions that will be crucial in the theater of The Traveler’s mind.
In terms of the theatre experience, this is a fascinating deconstruction. It is, however, a questionable use of time when so much else in The Fever is in desperate need of being more convincingly built.