I am a huge Wally Shawn fan and have been since high school. It’s not really a common thing, to be a huge Wally Shawn fan, unless you are well into middle age, have enjoyed a certain type of aesthetically privileged upbringing and are at least a second-generation New Yorker. I am none of these things. But as I said, I’m a fan. A huge fan.
A lot of you know this about me and almost all of you think it’s weird. Even I think it’s weird, but I can’t help myself. Wally is chubby. Wally is bald. Wally speaks with lispy whine and looks like a gnome or a frog, depending on who you ask. And, after I met him last weekend, my suspicions were confirmed that he is actually shorter than I am. I’m not being mean, by the way. These are universal observations about Wally. You can look them up.
You may not think you know Wally, but you kind of do. Now in his 60s, he is the son of William Shawn, venerable editor of The New Yorker from 1951 to 1987. From what I’ve read about Wally, he enjoyed one of those rarefied Upper East Side childhoods that almost always exist as a myth. Except Wally actually lived it, growing up with a constant ebb and flow of the giants of literature, music and theater, the rich, the powerful, the scandalous. You and I read Charlotte’s Web after school. Wally very likely sat next to E.B. White at one of this parents’ dinner parties. Wally went to Harvard and then to Oxford. And then he became a playwright and an actor.
The first time I saw Wally was in the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, which he wrote and starred in with another playwright, Andre Gregory. It was directed by Lous Malle. The premise is simple: Wally and Andre, mostly playing themselves, meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant and they talk about life. Andre’s point is that we have all so thoroughly insulated ourselves from the world and each other that we aren’t really “living” at all. Wally by and large thinks this is a load of crap:
Andre: What does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold, don't in any way affect us? I mean, were animals after all. I mean... what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we're living in a fantasy world of our own making.
Wally: Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It's a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I'm not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I'm looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I'm trying to protect myself because, really, there's these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!
For most of his time on-screen, Wally sits there looking incredulous and alarmed. When Andre says something that particularly rattles him, he squeaks, “What?!” and his food falls from his fork, or from his mouth. I watched the film and couldn’t see myself reacting any differently than Wally. I became a huge fan.
You’re probably a Wally Shawn fan too, though you might not know it. Not a huge fan, like me, but a fan nonetheless. Wally supports his career as a playwright by acting. After My Dinner with Andre came The Princess Bride, in which Wally starred with Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal and Andre the Giant. Wally plays the inept kidnapper and spends most of the movie running around in tights and shrieking, “Inconceivable!” during the dramatic peaks. After that was the excellent Vanya on 42nd Street (another Louis Malle film), in which Wally, Julianne Moore and some other terrific actors rehearse the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya in the derelict, rat-infested New Amsterdam Theater before it was renovated. Andre (Gregory, not The Giant) is directing them in the rehearsal. Wally plays Vanya.
I won’t see Wally for a few years and then I’ll be watching TV or sitting in a movie theater and unexpectedly he’ll appear. The teacher in Clueless? That’s Wally. The voice of Rex the Dinosaur in Toy Story 2? Wally. The short, lisping alien with the giant ears in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? Wally again. Sex and the City? There’s Wally. Manhattan? Hey, there’s Wally! He’s everywhere yet deliberately below the radar. He is commited to both the highbrow and the absurd. All of this I respect.
But as I said he is first and foremost a writer, and a very good one. His themes are usually political and dark and the language complex and melodic. His plays include Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Designated Mourner and The Fever. The problem with being a huge fan of Wally Shawn the playwright, however, is that his performances of his plays are as unpredictable as his screen appearances. And he never seems to leave Manhattan. For example, a few years ago I read that he was doing maybe 20 performances of The Designated Mourner. Except it wasn’t being performed in a traditional theater. Rather, it was being staged in an abandoned building near Wall Street and the space only seated a few dozen people. Oh, and there really wasn’t any information about where you could buy tickets.
That’s why after 25 years of being a huge fan I had yet to see Wally perform one of his plays onstage. Until last weekend. I had seen a small ad in The New York Times announcing that The Fever would be performed in New York City for several weeks. In the theater district. In an actual theater. There was even a phone number you could call to order tickets. The ad read, “Please join Mr. Shawn one half-hour before each performance for a sip of champagne.” I bought tickets for two different dates, just in case, and booked my flight.
And so that’s how I found myself on the stage of The Acorn Theater, a glass of champagne in my hand, standing in line to say hello to Wally Shawn. He was round and a little slumped, and was wearing a tweed jacket and comfortable walking shoes. He was imminently courteous as he received each person, though I noticed he did not shake hands. (Afraid of germs, I thought. Very Wally-esque.) As I got nearer, with Big G behind me, poking me in the spine to move me along since he could tell I was a little flustered, I could hear Wally’s conversations:
Man: “This is my first play!”
Wally (squeaking, though very politely): “The first play?”
Man: “The first of your plays.”
Wally, nodding: “Well, I’ll do my best. I think you’ll survive.”
Woman: “I loved you in Star Trek!”
Wally, tilting head and thinking for a few seconds: “Well, this will be a bit different.”
And so on. Then it was my turn. “I’m really looking forward to the performance,” I said. “I’ve been a huge fan of yours since high school!”
Wally’s eyes widened a bit. He tilted his head. “Well,” he said. A few people laughed. It did sound pretty weird. I told him about trying to find tickets to The Designated Mourner. I didn’t tell him that when I worked at Disney (the distributor of Toy Story 2) I had a Rex poster hanging in my office. “We’re really looking forward to the performance,” I said again. And then I fled to my seat.
The Fever is a 90-minute monologue in which Wally’s character essentially makes the point that despite all of our hand-wringing and protestations to the contrary, most of us lucky enough to have money and comfort will only help the poor to a degree that does not – wouldn’t ever – impact our own position of privilege. Uncomfortable truths, beautiful words. Then the lights came up and after waiting just a moment as we applauded, he walked up the aisle and out the door. Once again, he was gone. Who knows when and where I’ll see him again?