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Shawn Behaving Badly 

Wallace Shawn Festival

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
The story goes that a little bald man who looked suspiciously like Wallace Shawn turned up an hour early for opening night of the first-ever festival treatment of Wallace Shawn's plays, at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley, and said to the box-office lady in a whiny voice, "I'm here to buy a ticket for the Wallace Shawn Festival?"

Shyness, or circumspection, seems odd from the author of Marie and Bruce and Our Late Night. You would have been forgiven for thinking the bile and nasty language spewing from the stage later that evening could never have been written by someone with tact. But the circumspect stranger was Wallace Shawn, and he sniggered his way through both shows before catching a plane to New York.

Bile and nasty behavior are the point of Shawn's plays: His central theme is the barbarism of polite society. Marie and Bruce and Our Late Night both deal with hate-filled upper-middle-class marriages and the parties at which they inconveniently break down. The two works play on night one of a two-night cycle; the second night's offerings are Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever, which Shawn (unfortunately) missed -- unfortunately because night two is much stronger. Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever are both political. Shawn has a taste for polemic, and when he writes about politics his characters come alive.

Aunt Dan isn't a play so much as an installation, an exhibit in Shawn's inquiry into state-sanctioned violence. Lemon, or Leonora, appeals to the audience directly, eloquently, uncontradicted by anyone onstage, with an elaborate defense of both Henry Kissinger's policy in Vietnam and the Nazis. Tori Hinkle, in this production, sits primly in an easy chair mounted on what looks like a nest with lemons, and in an English-accented, spoiled-girl voice gives an account of a gauntlet of whips set up by the Nazis at Treblinka for Jews to run before they were gassed. "Their strategy was to use politeness for as long as possible," says Lemon, full of admiration, "and when politeness no longer sufficed, they used whips!"

Then she tells about a lesbian friend of her parents, Danielle, or Aunt Dan -- a conservative American Oxford don who defends Kissinger during the Vietnam War. Lemon's childhood memories, from family dinners to political chats in the garden, play out while Lemon looks on lovingly. The controlling idea is that Aunt Dan's opinions on Kissinger fed Lemon's opinions about Nazism. But the play sprawls -- there's no structure, no dramatic tension. Its most interesting components are its eponymous characters and, of course, its provocative point: "The mere fact of killing human beings to preserve a certain way of life," says Lemon, referring to Vietnam, "does not make the Nazis unique." Hinkle's appallingly charming performance turns the show into the centerpiece of the festival.

The Fever boils Shawn's taste for polemic down to its simplest form: a monologue. It's a long and demanding piece delivered by a man in a suit (Richard Reinholdt), who describes being sick in a Third World country. He cuts between the fever and his life in New York. "I like to go out at night in a metropolitan city," he says, "and sit in a darkened auditorium and watch dancers leap into each other's arms." Meanwhile people in other countries, he realizes, are being tortured and raped.

The Fever is a guilt-purge by a privileged American man, and Reinhold gives a tour-de-force performance. He can be authoritative and loud or gentle and slow; sometimes he dances to the jaunty samba music playing persistently in the background; sometimes he sits and earnestly implores. (In slack moments he can also be effortful and mannered.) The show has less form and more tedious digressions than Aunt Dan, but it delivers a devastating wound. Reinholdt gives an ironic speech by wealthy countries to the poor that's especially hard to shake: "Sit down. Wait. Don't try to grab," he scolds. "Last year we took everything for ourselves. Now that was wrong. This time we'll give you some ... but we are not going to give you everything!" Then he points out that the farmland of rich countries is "soaked in blood," and dresses as Santa, waving a knife and gun.

Shawn first performed The Fever to audiences of 10 or 12 in friends' apartments around Manhattan. It's his most personal play, as well as his funniest. It works as an intelligent man's agonized howl, along the lines of "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" in The Threepenny Opera. And the reason it works is that Shawn has tried to strip away any pretense of not being privileged, of knowing what to do, or of telling other people what to do. He just wants to see clearly where he stands, and suggest his friends might be standing there, too.

The two other plays are less interesting. Our Late Night gives us a party populated by drunk Manhattan types who flirt with each other's husbands and wives, make fools of themselves, dance, and puke. One guest (Stig Kreps) gives a Fever-like monologue about a fat woman he screwed in the tropics. Reinholdt plays a goofy guest in a Freud beard, Coke-bottle glasses, and stethoscope. He's funny, and Tori Hinkle does a smooth job as Annette; but most of the madness is random and therefore boring. Shawn has allowed Our Late Night to be played only twice before, apparently because he thinks the show belongs in a small room. But I doubt a lower ceiling would help this production.

It might help Marie and Bruce -- a lot of the intensity Last Planet packed into this play last February at the Adeline Street Theater gets lost in the rafters of the Julia Morgan. Marie realizes after years of marriage to Bruce that she hates his guts, and decides to leave him. They have a spectacularly bad time in their apartment, at a party, and in a restaurant. The cast has refined its acting since February and director John Wilkins has focused his staging, but the down moments in the play feel stillborn in the larger space, and that visceral sense of wild anger rearing up into an eloquent silence at the end of the show has been lost. At first this looked like a defining role for Tiffany Hoover, as Marie, but she does sharper work as Aunt Dan.

Shawn has said his characters play out his "interior life as a raging beast," and maybe that's because his interior life was pruned in boyhood as the son of William Shawn, the famously prim New Yorker editor. It's fun to picture him as a little boy with violent fantasies in a quiet living room. The overall results, now that he's written these fantasies down? Sloppy, devastating, tedious, and pretty damn funny.


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