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'Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts' by Wallace Shawn
Twenty-seven years after "My Dinner With Andre," Wallace Shawn remains best known for that movie, as well as for his voice work in animated features such as "Toy Story" and "The Incredibles." Yet Shawn is most significant as a playwright -- author of "Aunt Dan and Lemon," "The Designated Mourner" and the scabrous performance piece "The Fever" -- who addresses political and social issues in highly stylized forms. In a sense, this ambition has worked against him, making his work hard to characterize and, perhaps more important, to produce.
"Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts" (Theatre Communications Group: 86 pp., $14.95 paper) brings together two early plays that offer a glimpse of Shawn's sensibility in protean form. If not exactly juvenilia, they are the work of a young writer, one consumed with certain themes -- sex, the discomforts of the body -- and intent on avoiding the conventions of naturalistic storytelling in favor of a willful derangement. "Our Late Night" (1972) takes place at a party in which people talk at one another, over one another, around one another until language becomes less a means of communication than a weapon or a defense. "A Thought in Three Parts" (1976) is about relationships, although here too the characters are most noteworthy for the ways they do not connect.
Shawn is the master of a certain kind of self-consciousness, but what's surprising is how graphic these plays are. Characters masturbate and have sex onstage while addressing each other in the most mundane generalities. People are reduced to their most elemental selves. It's strong stuff -- vivid and disturbing, a potent metaphor for just how thin the veneer of socialization really is. "To begin with," Shawn writes in an introduction, "my plays are a response to the world we live in," and here that world emerges as a set of surfaces that cannot cover (or contain) the animal intensity roiling underneath.
firstname.lastname@example.org David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.