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The Fever

  • Theater, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Lili Taylor in The Fever
    Photograph: Courtesy Daniel Rader The Fever
  2.  Lili Taylor in The Fever
    Photograph: Courtesy Daniel RaderThe Fever
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Lili Taylor has infectious power in Wallace Shawn's trenchant dissection of capitalism and its discontents.

Theater review by Adam Feldman

The Fever begins with a dramatic feint to make everyone more comfortable. Lili Taylor, with an air of amiable familiarity, lopes up the aisle and chats with us as she sets the bare stage with a few simple pieces of furniture: a plush orange chair, a side table, a lamp. Soft-spoken and unassuming, she delivers much of Wallace Shawn’s purgatory 95-minute monologue curled up on the chair, looking cozy. If you’re familiar with Shawn’s work, however, you may know that this is a trap. As an actor, he has an adorably unthreatening persona; as a writer, though, he bites savagely at the hands that have fed him all his life: the high-minded, well-intentioned class of culturati that includes exactly the kind of person who is likely to attend a limited run of an Off Broadway play in the West Village, such as this one. He’s like a guest at a dinner party who distracts you with talk of literature and dance, then stabs you in the ribs with his salad fork.

The narrator in The Fever, which Shawn first performed himself in 1990, is a traveler to a world that is not her own. “There's a small war going on in this poor country where my language isn't spoken,” she tells us, and she has gone to learn more about the government repression—torture, murder, mutilation—that is happening there. At night, in her hotel room, she is seized by a violent illness that serves (with apologies to Susan Sontag) as a metaphor. It is the physical manifestation of her growing self-disgust and alienation from the comforts she had previously taken for granted, but which she has come to understand have very much been taken, often with violence, from the poor and dispossessed.

Her first exposure to this virus of self-awareness comes in an encounter with a man on a nude beach. “The rich are pigs, they’re all pigs, some day those pigs will get what they deserve," he says, and she finds him amusing. But in time she begins to see signs of his attitude everywhere. She reads Das Kapital, and Marx’s ideas about commodity fetishism begin to infect her experience of the lovely objects she has always aspired to surround herself with. She comes to feel that, in our obsessive examination of our interior lives, we neglect the most important and determinant parts of ourselves: our material conditions and their bloody prologues, an uneven distribution of resources going back centuries. “The life I live is irredeemably corrupt,” she concludes. “It has no justification.” 

Taylor starred in Scott Elliott’s 2003 revival of Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, in which her character showed how easy it can be to slide into moral rot; here, again under Elliott’s direction, she wrestles with how difficult it is to climb out of it. Thirty years ago, The Fever was dismissed in some quarters as an exercise in radical chic. Today, as discussions of privilege and economic disparity rage throughout the culture, it feels more like an intervention, with a tacit warning about the simmering rage of the underclass against the rich: “I'm trying to tell you that people hate you. I'm trying to explain to you about the people who hate you.” If its critique of capitalism sometimes seems obvious, that’s the point: It confronts us, in no uncertain terms, about how much labor goes into our daily avoidance of the most obvious things about the way we live—a labor that amounts to a form of insanity. “There's no charm in you, there's nothing graceful, nothing that yields,” she tells herself, and us. “You're simply a relentless, unbearable fanatic.” The Fever doesn’t want to make you sick. What it says, with ineluctable directness, is: You are sick already. 

The Fever. Minetta Lane Theatre (Off Broadway). By Wallace Shawn. Directed by Scott Elliott. With Lili Taylor. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission. 

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Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

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