April 22, 1999
at Cafe Metropol
If the poor are always with us, as Jesus said, so, it seems, is the self-flagellating guilt of the better-off. This guilt, which is not for all their noise the exclusive territory of educated liberals, finds various expressions, some healthy--from redistributive social reform to simple charity--and others more troubled, narcissistic. . . and endlessly, maddeningly fascinating.
In exploring a facet of this privileged guilt, Wallace Shawn's beautifully written one-person parlor play The Fever embodies the obsessive fretting of an unreconstructed New York intellectual haunted by fears of an angry, oppressed underclass and sickened by his own comfortable aestheticism in the midst of abject suffering, and it is written in the author's teasing, self-effacing, pleasingly effrontive cadences. For both better and worse, Paul Mackley, who's now performing the play at a cozy caf in downtown L.A.'s artist's loft district, is not a nebbishy New York intellectual but a tall, fortyish bohemian type from whom Shawn's more ironic, culturally specific class commentary rings tinnily but who endows the piece's passionately argued social gospel with a dark, brooding, evangelical conviction.
This approach can be offputting, as it weakens the play's wryly disarming and ultimately affecting tone of apology; where Shawn's narrator comes off as genuinely sorry he ever began questioning his way of life, and sorry he's ruining our evening by questioning ours, Mackley seems more bent on buttonholing us with the play's horror stories.
But The Fever is so much more than the personality piece most solo shows are; if it doesn't quite transcend its author's voice, there is enough meat on its bones to be served raw. Under director Wendy Molyneux, Mackley can be suave and insinuating one moment, flatly confrontational the next; indeed, his more abrupt transitions are the most effective, whereas those that pass with barely a quaver in tone make the show seem longer than its roughly 90-minute whole.
The overall impression given by Mackley's rendition is of a pastoral message delivered by a liberal priest who's shed the cloth in a crisis of faith but who can't shed his sense of mission or of sin. It may be a far cry from Shawn's excitable urban angst, but it is a cri de coeur nonetheless.
"The Fever," presented by the Wolfskill Theater at Caf Metropol, 923 E. Third St., Downtown L.A. Apr. 10-May 29. (213) 620-9229.