"This play is hard to watch as a socialist." Said the young man sitting next to me at Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band: a play about the Khmer Rouge regime. That performance seems ages ago now; it was the last I saw before the theatre shutdown. But I have a feeling that socialist would find Wallace Shawn's The Fever, performed by Lili Taylor at the Minetta Lane Theatre, easier viewing.
Directed by Scott Elliott and co-produced by Audible Theater and The New Group, it's a 90-minute monologue about the guilt of being privileged and rich in a world where so many are impoverished. Despite much to love in this new production (it was originally performed by Wallace Shawn several years ago), including beautiful writing and Lili Taylor's charisma, I found my patience waning toward the end.
First, the good. Taylor enters carrying a large purse and coffee, as if she's stopped at Starbucks on the way over. She's refreshingly down-to-earth as she chats with us, explaining that she's going to bring in some furniture to create the idea of a room, and that there are no other actors coming--it's just her. Brief as this introduction was, it was utterly delightful. For a moment, I saw my way clear to a new, more participatory kind of post-pandemic theatre.
Another good thing: Shawn's writing is apt and often exquisite. His vivid descriptions call up characters as if they stood in front of us: an intense guerrilla fighter, an impoverished baker, soldiers in green uniforms like pajamas. His use of language is that of an accomplished storyteller who's also a poet: a consummate professional when it comes to simile, metaphor, and description.
Presented as a monologue, The Fever describes the main character's visit to a poor country ravaged by genocide. One night, waking up feverish in a bug-infested hotel, she sits on the bathroom floor and, amid violent vomiting, reevaluates her whole life. Born into privilege and holding a high-paying job, she questions how that privilege came to her and what right she has to hold on to it when suffering surrounds her.
It's an eye-opening message, and to her credit, Taylor manages to keep it engaging for a surprising length of time. But you can only listen to one person monologue about their privilege for so long, even when that person is played by someone as charming as Taylor. About 60 minutes in, I began to tire of this gratuitous account of one person's self-awakening, heartfelt though it is. I'm glad they've come to terms with some hard stuff, but 90 minutes is just too long for this sort of thing.
Furthermore, Shawn offers no path forward. Instead, he mires us in the realization of our privilege and the recognition that change will never come, then leaves us there. At the end of the play, Taylor walks out of the theatre, but we're still trapped inside. It's as if we've been handed a ticking bomb but haven't been told how to detonate it.
The Fever, written by Wallace Shawn, directed by Scott Elliott, and starring Lili Taylor, will play 18 performances only from Friday, October 8 – Sunday, October 24 at the Minetta Lane Theatre, Audible’s home for live entertainment in New York. For more info and tickets, see the link below: