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When I first heard that Wallace Shawn would precede the performance of his 1990 monologue by welcoming audience members to the off-Broadway stage of the Acorn to sip champagne, I thought: is he kidding? Was the quaffing meant to poke fun at us, given that parts of the play express its narrator’s guilt about enjoying the perquisites of prosperity?

If the cosy pre-curtain ritual is meant to chide us, it is performed so deadpan that I missed the mockery. Shawn’s pre-play socialising, as well as the way he stands outside the exit post-performance, suggest nothing so much as a Protestant minister greeting the flock after the Sunday sermon. And, in a sense, that’s exactly what Shawn is doing: a central question of The Fever – how can a privileged person with a conscience not rise up in the face of the world’s widespread poverty? – is one that still inspires preachers to thunder forth from the pulpit.

Scott Elliott’s production for The New Group forgoes the pulpit in favour of a warm brown-leather chair, from which the playwright delivers most of the 90-minute evening. Subtle shifts in lighting cue modulations in the text.

The single character, The Traveler, has awoken in “a strange hotel room in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken”. In between febrile dreams, he remembers moments from his comfy life back in a city resembling New York.

Shawn’s reliance on almost parable-like generalities and his reluctance to ingratiate with shaped anecdotes can make the time here pass slowly. His vocal delivery can be hypnotic, and judging from the nappers around me, the lulling quality achieved its effect.

Yet the short-story lyricism of the text can be beautiful. And Shawn is much too aware a writer to be reduced to the label of guilt-ridden radical. If The Fever carries more impact on the page than on the stage, I was happy to have witnessed its sometimes elusive, sometimes startling colours. ★★★☆☆

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