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A CurtainUp Review
By Jerry Weinstein

The ice cream there seemed to be like a drug — it was so light — delicious perfection. A journalist I met who was staying at the hotel explained to me that it didn't make sense to admire the revolution because of its ice cream.— Narrator

Wallace Shawn in the Fever
Wallace Shawn
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Wallace Shawn's monologue, first performed at The Public Theatre in 1990 with a ticket price of a ten spot, has mushroomed to $51.25 a seat, connoting not only a radical change to the economics of performance, but by implication demonstrating a climbing unequal distribution of wealth. But it's not as though in one generation that the Theater has suddenly averred from populist expression to a form of elitism.

When The Fever was first reviewed, it was Obie-acclaimed but savaged by critics. It's well known that Shawn is no pet of John Simon (who has variously referred to his work as "garbage" and his looks as "grotesque"), but even the fair-minded Frank Rich termed the piece back then as a "musty radical-chic stunt." Years later, the New York Times hasn't found the love for The Fever, Charles Isherwood charging it with "conscience-baiting." What an unfortunate coinage, but perhaps Isherwood is inadvertently onto something.

While the play is set in an unnamed Central American dictatorship, it's relevant to note that it premiered during the first Gulf War and is now revived for the current conflict. Compared to today's insta-news — Saddam's execution, the tasering of a UCAL/Berkeley student, both on YouTube in real-time — the world of 1990 was a walled garden. At that time Shawn was breathing life into urgent dispatches from a front no one of privilege need visit. Today we have "ecotourism" and live at a time of greater paradoxes: The poor of the world have cellular technology, but still not enough for two square meals a day.

The Fever is a jagged little pill to swallow because it is harrowing to grasp, in a country that is itself facing a growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. But to be poor in the good old U.S. of A. is comparatively, to be a Pasha elsewhere. This season we can all watch Blood Diamonds and identify with Leonardo DiCapricio's growing revulsion of the gem trade; alternatively we can find purchase in cell phones, in artfully torn T-shirts, thanks to the global initiative of ProjectRed. But works such as The Fever remind us of the absurdity of "shopping for a cure."" Better to dig a bit deeper, mining such works such as Melissa Faye Green's non-fiction novel There Is No Me Without You, (about the 3 million AIDS orphans in Nigeria and Ethiopia), or watching films such as Robert Greenwalt's expose on Walmart. Even Michael Moore's consumerist canon for all its bluster reveals that today's low prices don't come cheaply. These all echo the glimpses into what Shawn endeavors to sustain for an evening: That our comfort, no matter how precarious, is at the expense of the objectively poor. How should one react upon learning that the life expectancy of women in Zambia is thirty-two?

Shawn's piece reminds one of Dick Cheney's reticence during the first term of the Bush administration to ask for sacrifice when it came to energy conservation. Perhaps, like Oklahoma's Senator Inhofe, he believes that global warming is "Al Gore's best chance at the presidency." Whatever helps him sleep at night keeps the world restless.

Unlike Messrs. Rich, Isherwood, and Simon, I do not take offense at Shawn's Fever, or see it as a scold for the simple reason that he is not finger pointing at his audience, but is relating his self-described cowardice to a more inclusive "us." There are many who with the dismantling of welfare, the weakening of affirmative action, of Roe v. Wade, ask where is liberalism and how do we strive to make the world a better place? Shawn's piece is not explicitly a call to arms, but it does insist, unlike Cheney, that we must make sacrifices. And, in this sense its accomplishment, not quite to riven our cashmeres between sips of Pommery champagne, is a provocation unto itself. Once again, as Tom Friedman reminds "The World Is Flat.".

Editor's Notes posted prior to Jerry Weinstein's review: CurtainUp older critics were somewhat hesitant to take on the New Group's revival of Shawn's monologue. Our younger critics were eager to partake of his navel-gazing lesson in, as our DC critic writing about another production put it, how our good intentions can actually be attempts to keep the status quo. None were put off by the fact that this was likely to be a ninety-minute lesson in unwelcome truths masquerading as a play. It seems that accusations that this is a generation of short attention span, easy entertainment junkies, doesn't apply to young theater critics. Still, judging by an under thirty trio I talked to last Saturday at the new Ollie's on Theater Row after they had seen a matinee of The Fever, audiences of all age are likely to be as divided in their response now as they were when Shawn first performed this piece at the Public Theater in 1990 (it was actually fifteen minutes longer then). The young man of the threesome was all thumbs up, one of the women was on the fence, and the third felt the message was okay but that it was a lecture she would have preferred to "just read."

Whether it's the reputation of the New Group for cutting edge theater, Shawn's persona or the pre-performance on stage champagne party he's incorporated into this revival, The Fever it has created enough of a buzz to make this a likely sold out run.

Readers might also want to check out Rich See's review of a DC production which like many mounted since Shawn's Public Theater version have had other actors cast as The Traveler --The Fever-DC.

Written and performed by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Scott Elliott
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Eric Becker
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
Sound: Bruce Odland
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes without intermission
The New Group, Acorn Theater , 410 West 42nd Street (212) 279-4200 or
From 1/09/07 to 3/03/07; opening 1/29/07. Monday-Saturday @ 8:00 PM, with matinees on Saturday @ 2:00 PM. -- champagne reception with Mr. Shawn 30 minutes before curtain.
Tickets are $51.25.
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein
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