SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:
Hi, it's WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. In New York, the sweet smell of success - sort of. This summer and fall, the famed Public Theater is presenting the work of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. It's a revival of his 1996 drama, "The Designated Mourner," which the New York Times said is not to be missed and, quote, "makes the definitive case for Mr. Shawn as one of the most complex and uncompromising moralists of the American theater, unquote. Nice review. But, Shawn's plays are rarely produced. Tom Vitale reports that while Wallace Shawn considers himself an artist of the stage, he makes his living on the big screen.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Wallace Shawn's plays are different. His characters tell stories in monologues rather than acting them out onstage; they use cascades of words to make dizzying arguments. "The Designated Mourner" is about the dissolution of culture, along with the dissolution of a marriage. The central character is Jack, who is played by his creator.
WALLACE SHAWN: (as Jack) A highbrow was someone who liked the finer things, you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby, while a lowbrow was someone who liked to take the easy way in the cultural sphere. Oh, the funny papers, pinups, you know, cheap entertainment.
VITALE: In the play, Jack is the designated mourner for the last intellectual who could still understand the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. But Jack, himself, can't. Still, for Shawn, it's a tragedy to not spend time with the work of the great writers.
SHAWN: That's like saying I could have dinner with a wise, brilliant person whose thoughts are consciousness-expanding, but unfortunately, I can only really enjoy hanging out with incredibly shallow people who only want to gossip about the latest problems of unfortunate, mentally disturbed celebrities.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY DINNER WITH ANDRE")
SHAWN: (as Wally Shawn) But the worst thing of all, I had been trapped by a series of circumstances into agreeing to have dinner with a man I'd been avoiding literally for years. His name was Andre Gregory.
VITALE: Wallace Shawn's best-known piece of writing is a two-hour, scripted dinner conversation with a brilliant eccentric. In Louis Malle's 1981 film, "My Dinner with Andre," Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory eat, and talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY DINNER WITH ANDRE")
SHAWN: (as Wally Shawn) We're walking around like zombies. I don't even think we're aware of ourselves, our own reaction to things. We're just going around all day like unconscious machines, and meanwhile there's all this rage and worry and uneasiness just building up and building up inside us.
ANDRE GREGORY: (as Andre Gregory) That's right, just builds up. And then it just leaks out inappropriately.
VITALE: Andre Gregory made his name as a theater director in the 1960s as the head of the experimental Manhattan Project company. Now, he's 79 years old and has been directing Wallace Shawn's plays for 40 years, one of the longest collaborations in the history of the American Theater.
GREGORY: I happen to feel he's the greatest writer in the American theater. He's a poet of the theater. He's socially engaged. There's such a thing as a passive culture and active culture. A passive culture tells you what to think, how to feel. An active culture is one that tries to wake up the audience - to think, to feel and to confront themselves. And probably the main theme of "My Dinner with Andre" is wake up.
VITALE: Here's where we get to the contradiction in Shawn's life and work. He's the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn. He studied history at Harvard and philosophy at Oxford. So, naturally, he understands highbrow culture and great writers. But Wallace Shawn has made his living doing quite the opposite.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")
SHAWN: (as Rex) Were you scared? Tell me honestly.
TOM HANKS: (as Woody) I was close to being scared that time.
SHAWN: (as Rex) Oh, I'm going for fearsome here but I just don't feel it. I think I'm just coming off as annoying.
VITALE: In the "Toy Story" movies, Shawn is the voice of Rex, the green dinosaur. Shawn made his debut as a screen actor in Woody Allen's "Manhattan" in 1979, and he's appeared in hundreds of roles since - usually as the comic, downtrodden nebbish.
SHAWN: I think it's rather fun that's compared to Dostoyevsky or many other writers, I appear in cartoons. I sort of enjoy the fact that I have made a living in an innocent way. And because I found a way to make a living, I didn't face a temptation to write in a way that would be popular.
VITALE: So, Shawn could afford spend 10 years writing his newest play, "Grasses of a Thousand Colors," which opened at the Public in October. In it, Shawn appears as a scientist who has figured out a way to solve world hunger by having species eat their own dead. In the opening scene, the scientist recites the epigraph to his memoir, which hints of the violence, and the poetry to follow.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "GRASSES OF A THOUSAND COLORS")
SHAWN: (as a scientist) It was just after dawn, the air was cold, and the ground was damp with my own blood. As I wondered what circumstances could have brought me here, I looked across the vast expanse of the plain on which I lay, and it seemed that I could see grasses of a thousand colors.
VITALE: Shawn's longtime companion, Deborah Eisenberg, is one of the three actors in the cast of the "The Designated Mourner," and a short-story writer who won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her own work. Eisenberg says Wallace Shawn's writing is provocative and demanding.
DEBORAH EISENBERG: It tends to be so intense that people are either drawn in, whether they want to be or not, or they just drop off quite fast. But you can't really be neutral towards it. Either you accept it completely - it overwhelms you - or you flee from it.
VITALE: A case in point: When "Grasses of a Thousand Colors" had its world premiere four years ago in London, there was a line outside the Royal Court Theater of people waiting to take the seats of ticket-holders who walked out during intermission.
SHAWN: It's probably bad luck to refer on the radio to the people who hate the play, or are in agony. Obviously, if there are too many of them, it's much harder to perform. So, if you're listening to this and you think you might be one of those people, don't come.
VITALE: Wallace Shawn says at his age, 69, he's not looking ahead to any new projects after this season at the Public Theater.
SHAWN: After this? My dear fellow, if we get through this, it's going to be Florida all the way, you know, sitting under the palm tree with the mai-tais. That's it.
VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.