The Walls Inside Wally Shawn

“He’s in my dreams almost every night!” said Marisa Tomei, star of the New Group’s production of Marie and Bruce, about her playwright, Wallace Shawn. “He’s, like, giving me advice, so far, about my own personal life!” Ms. Tomei was quick to specify that the real-life Mr. Shawn would never impose himself on her in such a way.

At a recent preview performance of the show, which opened April 5, Mr. Shawn, the iconically impish character actor and 67-year-old son of the late longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn, arrived in lumberjack drag–an oversize buffalo-plaid overcoat and black snow boots. After telling The Observer he associated our newspaper with “hate” due to a critic’s comments, he corrects himself almost apologetically. “You can write with hate. I don’t mean to tell you how you can write.”

He is as unwilling to impose himself upon the creative process of the Marie and Bruce revival. Frank Whaley, the male lead who engages in wordplay and emotional swordplay with Ms. Tomei in the play, said, “Wally just has a certain way about him that makes one feel very at ease. It’s hard to imagine that such a brilliant mind is inside of that. He doesn’t speak until someone asks him a question.”

While he chose to rewrite portions of the script for the revival–an unusual commitment for a playwright looking at a decades-old play–Mr. Shawn views the process as a privilege. “Even if I were locked out of the production–as I have been–I would still come and watch it because I love seeing my own play being beautifully interpreted. In a short time, this will go away, and I won’t be able to have this anymore.”

Mr. Shawn’s work has frequently been revived–the review that so struck him, by John Heilpern, appeared in 2004, on occasion of the Aunt Dan and Lemon revival at the New Group–but it was something of a long road to Marie and Bruce‘s return. Both Ms. Tomei and director Scott Elliott asked Mr. Shawn about the play frequently over the years. First, though, the play was adapted into a film, which played at Sundance in 2004 but was released to DVD only in 2009.

“Wally had to go through that process of that movie and seeing that through before he would feel comfortable about” a stage revival, said Mr. Elliott; for his part, Mr. Shawn is effusive about the filmmaking process, particularly since he was able to collaborate with “a wonderful friend,” the movie director Tom Cairns.

While Mr. Shawn has a catholic interest in seeing his work produced anywhere–“I’m interested in reviving all of my plays! I have some irrational belief in them,” he said–he works fairly consistently with trusted friends. Mr. Elliott directed the last Aunt Dan and Lemon revival, and also recruited Mr. Shawn to translate Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and to act in David Rabe’s Hurlyburly; Mr. Whaley first met Mr. Shawn at a taping for a failed pilot about solar-panel installers in the early 2000s.

The playwright did not know Ms. Tomei well before the start of the production, but their rapport is clear. When she stepped onstage to work out a lighting cue during his interview with The Observer, Mr. Shawn yelled out, “Oh my God! It’s the famous actress coming onto the stage! And we’re just talking about ourselves.”

His jokes aside, Mr. Shawn is more likely to talk about himself through his work than in conversation. Marie and Bruce shows a pair of people treating one another with brutal disregard in bed, at a party and at a cafe, but Mr. Shawn could not pinpoint any experience that had influenced his own opinion on relationships, or whether the play reflected his own opinions. (He is in a long-term relationship with the author Deborah Eisenberg.)

“I’m not terribly self-aware, so I don’t know,” he said. “Does it have anything to do with me? I don’t have the faintest idea. I mean, I just don’t know myself in that way. I would have a better sense if you asked me about a friend.”

But are relationships worth having, if they bring about the sort of pain this play depicts? “I just don’t–I think–a bland take on life would bore me, and I would feel, I’ve already seen that.” (He declined to name a recent New York-based production he’d liked, advising instead that The Observer “save your earnings” for a trip to France to watch the company Théâtre du Soleil.)

Mr. Shawn, whose father’s extramarital affair and sister’s institutionalization have been documented at length (in Lillian Ross’s Here But Not Here and Allen Shawn’s Twin, respectively), is protective of his privacy, but knows no alternative. The world is full of pitfalls for him, problems that fall outside his preferred realm of a roomful of thoughtful collaborators and his own written word. There are critics willing to humiliate Mr. Shawn: “It’s hurtful to think that people don’t like you, and it’s humiliating when everybody knows they don’t like you.”

Mr. Shawn was recently disappointed and perplexed that he didn’t land the role of Lloyd Blankfein in the upcoming HBO adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. (The part went to Evan Handler). “I do look like him in some ways, and I feel I could have played him. I don’t know why they felt I wouldn’t be adequate. I’m quite a bit older than Lloyd, and it could be that people can tell that, and they thought, we just can’t have Wally play Lloyd because he’s too old.” He looked, for the first time in our conversation, genuinely sad. This was a question without an answer. These were not friendly collaborators.

And there are still strangers on the street, unfamiliar with his plays, who lampoon his performance in The Princess Bride. “I must admit, they’re rarely that flattering. Even short or bald people such as myself have–we don’t have grotesque self-images.” Mr. Shawn was unsure whether he could bring himself to watch the recent My Dinner With Andre parody on the NBC comedy Community. “Are there people who imitate us? Or do they do their own version?” When told it was, mainly, the latter, Mr. Shawn was eager to watch it. Besides, he’d known the show’s costar, Chevy Chase, in school.

The world is full of parties, too, like the hellish dinner party (in the original script, a cocktail party) in Marie and Bruce. “I feel I’m terribly awkward and I would–I don’t know. I feel I can’t take a step without doing the wrong thing, hurting people’s feelings, saying something that wasn’t appropriate.” He prefers gatherings, he said, of four people or less.

Mr. Whaley is by now so familiar with the man he calls “a philosopher” that he finds himself, like a Woody Allen character following Mr. Allen’s lead, “sounding like Wally. It’s sort of in his voice, I feel.” Mr. Whaley’s Bruce is above all self-sacrificing, always trying to please Ms. Tomei’s Marie. Below that surface, though, the character requires small comforts to keep control, until a conditionally happy ending.

“He comes around and acknowledges his own feelings,” said Ms. Tomei, “his stubbornness, his unconsciousness, his selfishness. It’s the walls we come up against inside ourselves that prevent us from taking that extra step–and we all come up against those walls.”

Many of the rewrites Mr. Shawn executed were based, Mr. Elliott said, “on things that came to him emotionally as a result of his own life experiences,” experiences that remain opaque, perhaps even to the playwright.

“To be pretentious,” Mr. Shawn said, “you live out a certain day, and then you dream at night. The things that happened during the day influence your dream, but you don’t know how. But the ingredients of the dream come from your own life–where else would they come from?” :: @DPD_

The Walls Inside Wally Shawn