THERE ARE TWO faces to Wallace Shawn. Shawn the actor, seen in such films as The Princess Bride and Clueless, is a cranky but lovable wiseacre whose nasal inflections and comic whine demand attention. With his broad smirk and balding head, this Shawn is an accessible, marketable commodity.
A Contemporary Theater, ends July 2
Then there is Shawn the playwright, author of plays such as The Fever, currently playing at ACT, which are anything but accessible or marketable. As Shawn says in a note to performing this 1991 play, "You want people to listen to you and to understand what you're saying, but what you're actually saying is something that 99 percent of your audience will not want to hear."
The plot of this one-person show is so slight as to almost be negligible. A tourist in a Third World country lies in a hotel bathroom, sick and feverish, as shots are fired outside and the execution of a revolutionary is prepared. In this long dark night, the unnamed protagonist recalls his privileged past, brought up as one of the "delicate, precious, breakable children," and how he's always assumed as a charitable liberal that he's not only inherently good but deserving of this privilege. Now infected with the sick realization that this belief is false, he becomes aware that he is complicit in a dark and corrupt world where the benefits of his own material wealth are built directly on the subjugation and deprivation of the poor.
Local actor John Proccacino is always a pleasure to watch, but here he's a revelation. In past performances, his broad, craggy face has often been a mask, with much of the emotion coming through his heavy and commanding eyes. Here, however, he's animated, open, even charming, with an occasional goofy little grin. His humor and touching intimacy draw us further into Shawn's text, creating a seductive empathy with the ruthless intellectual observations as they emerge.
Laurence Ballard's direction keeps the action clean and unshowy, with most of the work focused on finding variety and an effective rhythm to the text. The Fever's ruthless self-laceration is not above criticism; any play that asks for social change and at the same time denies that such change is possible (even through drama) risks an implosion of self-loathing. Even those who would refute its thesis, however, will find that this piece comes as close to being necessary for a thinking person's mental diet as a piece of theater can be.