"Do you know what I look like?"

It was a steamy summer evening, and Wally Shawn was calling from a pay phone on the street. I had asked him for a copy of a play he had written years ago, and we were arranging to rendezvous somewhere between my place and his phone booth. This was before we had ever met and a couple of months before My Dinner with Andre opened at the New York Film Festival, so his question wasn't completely ridiculous. He was probably best known at that time for playing Diane Keaton's ex-husband in Manhattan, so when he said, "Do you know what I look like?" I almost blurted out, "Oh, yes, you're the one Woody Allen referred to as 'that homunculus.'"

But when I trotted down to the corner where we'd agreed to meet, I spied trudging toward me an even more outlandish-looking character than I'd expected. A short, blobby man, he wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, a piggy-pink jacket, a white shirt, beige trousers, and a rickety, almost colorless pair of the sort of eyeglasses you can buy at small-town dime stores. He carried a nylon duffel bag in one hand a shopping bag in the other. What was left of his hair formed a fringe of dark curls all around his hat, his eyes were soft and blue, and when he spoke he periodically lisped, his tongue resting between his front teeth in a cloud of spit bubbles.

By now, he's a familiar figure; even those who missed Dinner have probably seen him in any number of the more mainstream movies he's made since Manhattan. Two new movies featuring Shawn -- the Louis Malle film Crackers, and Deal of the Century, directed by William Friedkin -- are opening this month. But Shawn is more than just a pretty face. While he masquerades as a character actor in the movies, he also labors in obscurity as a brilliant contemporary playwright -- the American theater's best-kept secret. Although he is highly regarded by his peers and supported by mighty impresarios like Joseph Papp, his plays are performed infrequently; when they do make it to a stage, they invariably cause a sensation, provoking outrage and walkouts from a startling proportion of the people who come to see them. The most famous (or infamous) are Marie and Bruce, a Strindbergian love-hate comedy in which Louise Lasser shrugged off her Mary Hartman persona to play a woman who lavishes affectionate obscenities on her nebbishy husband; and The Hotel Play, a whimsical and moving cartoon produced three summers ago at off-off- Broadway's legendary La Mama theater with an eighty-member cast ranging from budding movie stars Elizabeth McGovern and Linda Hunt to a couple of New Yorker cartoonists to fellow writers Christopher Durang and Ann Beattie. Shawn's plays are odd. But they're also very funny, true, and...well, shockingly original.

Take Our Late Night, the script this straw-hatted playwright slipped me on the street. The play, which won an Obie Award when Andre Gregory directed it in 1975 (it has seldom been seen since), imagines a moody soiree attended by seven hip, youngish New Yorkers. The centerpiece of their vertiginous party chatter is one character's seven-page monologue about an episode of his sexual insatiability. What makes this passage startling, even shocking, is that, rather than spouting familiar obscenities or titillating with pornographic detail, it summons a peculiar lyricism to strip bare the uncontrollable emotion and unabashed bestiality that sex triggers. "She was like a pool of honey, with delicate, scented cries rising to the surface," the by-now aroused character says, describing one of his conquests. "Her lips were so hot, they almost burned my cheek. She let out scores of powerful, piglike squeals, more piercing than the cries." And after his accounts of making it with an immensely fat black woman, his own wife, his hand, a field of pine nettles, and a bank of sand, the hero of this wild tale doesn't crow over his stud-like sexual stamina but instead collapses in soul-scraping despair and cries himself to sleep.

Somehow, the poetics of sexual mania is hardly what you'd expect from this shy man encountered on the street, this elder son of The New Yorker's genteel editor, William Shawn, the person who publicly displayed himself in My Dinner with Andre as a mild-mannered guy whose portion of a conversation is mostly likely to consist of "Gosh!" or "Gee!" When you first meet him, he seems a lot like his movie characters, kooky and full of odd mannerisms but basically likeable: strange, but harmless. When you get to know him better, he turns out to be more like his plays, funny but deceptively simple, with hidden depths: harmless, but strange.

The room has the anonymity of cheap hotel rooms everywhere. A bed. A desk. A chair. But it's Shawn's hideout, for which he has forsaken the loft that he and his girlfriend, Debby Eisenberg, bought three years ago with her grandmother's legacy. A tiny room in a run-down residential hotel, it is his only protection from the petty but consuming demands of daily life.

"The fact is," says Shawn, "most of my time is spent racing around trying to answer half of my phone calls, doing half of my errands, paying half of my bills, just desperately trying to keep up with the minimum of life. And I have to fight and kill, I feel, to get any free time to do a little writing of my own. I feel I have to be a monster, a murderer, to get fifteen minutes for myself!"

A year has elapsed since we met on the street, and it's been a busy one for Wally Shawn. He spent the first few months of 1982 assiduously promoting My Dinner with Andre, the movie Louis Malle directed, which Shawn wrote and starred in with Andre Gregory, in which the two stars essentially played themselves: Andre, a flamboyant, avant-garde director disillusioned with the theater, recounts, over quail and white wine, his recent forays into paratheatrical mysticism -- while Wally, a curious playwright and actor, draws him out and responds with terse, man-on-the-street comments. The movie won rave reviews and attracted small but nearly fanatical audiences, and as it played in art houses across the country Shawn moved on to other acting assignments. He played a shrink in Marshall Brickman's movie Lovesick; reunited with Andre to play small parts in A Doll's House in Portland, Oregon; and spent several months in Thailand for a role as a CIA agent in a BBC film by British playwright David Hare called Saigon.

Now, as we meet again, several different projects compete for those precious fifteen minutes of Shawn's day. He's rewriting a screenplay for a famous German director. He's inventing a voice-over for another film whose makers have decided, after viewing a rough cut, that the script they filmed makes no sense. He's finishing the libretto for a musical composed by his brother called The Music Teacher, a professor's sexually graphic yet poignant recollection of his relationship with a student. And he's preparing for his role as a street person -- "a sort of retard" -- in Crackers, Louis Malle's remake (the first movie he's made since Dinner) of Vittorio de Sica's Big Deal on Madonna Street, for which Shawn must fly to San Francisco in two weeks. 

This image of a thriving show-biz workhorse isn't the impression you get from My Dinner with Andre, in which Shawn comes off as an abject, struggling artist. But one discovers soon enough that the movie is a very clever distortion of his life, a purposely misleading self-portrait.

Take his background. If you went by My Dinner with Andre, you would think Shawn had never strayed beyond the cigar store next door. Nothing could be further from the truth. He grew up in what was as cultivated a household as you could imagine; he was educated at the Dalton School in New York and the Putney School in Vermont, graduated from Harvard, spent a year in India teaching English to natives, and eventually earned two degrees from Oxford. He enjoyed harmonious relationships with his parents and siblings, and he established close friendships with literary luminaries from the late playwright S. N. Behrman to the Indian writer Ved Mehta. Family friend Renata Adler would later introduce Shawn to Andre Gregory, and Jonathan Schell, who wrote The Fate of the Earth and who has been mentioned as William Shawn's choice to succeed him as editor of The New Yorker, was Wally's roommate both at prep school and at Harvard.

"All my life I have tried to conceal my comfortable background," he says as we settle down to talk at the hotel. "I simply couldn't stand for people to know about it, although I suppose anybody with any sophistication would be able to detect it thirty seconds after meeting me. I'm not at all a self-created person. Most of what I believe and know has been given to me, along with the advantages of having grown up in relative comfort."

Most ambitious young men of such education, class, and talent would follow the straight and narrow path easily available to them, but after graduating from college Wally Shawn went off on his own to write nightmarish little plays. For years, he couldn't write unless he was in some exotic locale far from home. He wrote his first play on a trip to Italy, the second in Ireland, the third and fourth during an off-season visit to the tiny West Indian island of Bequia. When he could no longer afford to go abroad, he sold one percent of his future earnings as a playwright to six of his friends (one was screenwriter Jacob Brackman), which gave him enough to spend a few months holed up in a four-dollar-a-night hotel in Cedar Falls, Iowa, writing his fifth play -- all of this happening, incidentally, before a single word of his had been spoken by a professional actor. John Lahr, then an influential critic at The Village Voice, remembers Shawn appearing on his doorstep around 1970, handing over his collected works -- each entitled Untitled Play -- and saying, "I want you to read these, but I don't want to know what you think." Harmless, but strange.

Shawn made a living as a Latin teacher in a Catholic school and as a shipping clerk in Manhattan's garment district until the opening of Our Late Night, his first produced play and the one that he hoped would get him somewhere. this is what it got him: an Obie Award from The Village Voice, two hundred dollars in royalties, and a job as a Xerox machine operator for three dollars an hour. Joe Papp put Shawn on salary for a couple of months while he wrote a play called A Thought in Three Parts (in which five teenaged campers frolic, engaging in exuberant sex in bungalows) and later commissioned him to do a translation of Machiavelli's The Mandrake.

Still, the money situation was desperate. Shawn was on the verge of learning to drive a taxi when the director of The Mandrake decided it would be funny for him to act in the play. Woody Allen's casting director happened to see him onstage in this first acting gig, and the next thing he knew he was playing "that homunuclus" in Manhattan. When stage roles and bit parts in Starting Over, Simon, and All That Jazz followed, Wally realized that, instead of working as a shipping clerk or Xerox machine operator, he could make a living acting. Now he has a lifestyle other writers envy: not just a steady acting career but one with that special "Get me Wally Shawn" cachet, plus the freedom to write his mad plays without catering to commercial needs in order to make money.

This dual career is less of a happy accident than it seems, however. In fact, it almost seems inevitable. Film is about what you see, how someone looks; it consists of light, it's concrete. Drama consists of something you can't see, the invisible struggle between points of view; it comes from the void and returns there, it's evanescent. When Shawn's a movie actor, he can just be charming and eccentric; when he's a playwright, he can be crafty and mysterious. He's very good at putting up a surface of seductive philosophizing and disarming self- effacement while maintaining a calculated distance and a deception- by-omission. Unless you're onto his tricks, he can get away with keeping the real Wally Shawn completely out of sight.

"The only guide I have in writing is being honest with myself about whether I'm really interested in something or whether I'm actually sort of bored by it. And truthfully," he says slowly, "I'm interested in the intimate side of life."

Wally Shawn says everything slowly, struggling for exactitude.

"I would like to know," he says, "what the lives of other people are like in their quietest moments, what their relationships are like and what they feel about each other and what they feel about themselves when they're sitting alone in a room and what they do after the company has gone home and what suffering they may experience in the middle of the night."

Shawn is sitting in the straight-backed chair of his hotel room, one foot propped up against my armchair, his tiny baby hands clasped in his lap.

"Our society is sort of divided up so all those most interesting things are hidden," he continues, "and we don't know them very well. You meet people and they all, you know, seem to be doing okay, leading this sort of sensible life. Actually, that's the impression most people try to give you. But really, people's lives are much more different from one another than that, and behind the closed doors there are a lot of things going on that are more interesting and moving and a lot stranger than what people would really like you to think is going on."

He means sex, for one thing, but he can barely bring himself to talk about it. The hesitations and circumlocutions that generally punctuate his speech multiply. "Well...uh. The, uh, ordinary way that we modern Western people tend to think of ourselves, um...uh, doesn't really... um, uhh...take account of, uh, sex. That makes sex very interesting as a subject," he finally gets out. "For some reason, people think that it's an easy or superficial subject and that if you keep going back to it again and again in your writing, you must be a little frivolous. Even people who like my plays sort of wink when they refer to them, even to me, because it's taken for granted that if the subject of sex is mentioned in the play it isn't really serious the way a play about death or illness is. But in all sincerity, it seems to me to be the center of gravity. Sex is a way in which the mysterious forces of the universe find themselves inside predictable bourgeois lives and overthrow their predictability. It's a very powerful force that perhaps everyone else understands and I don't." He shrugs. "Or perhaps nobody understands."

Wally Shawn's zest for homey detail and his flair for the fantastic make his plays an unlikely cross between Chekhov and Lewis Carroll. He can turn the most trivial, fleeting comment into something unbearably sad ("I'm so tired of eating," says someone in The Hotel Play, "three meals a day, day after day"), and he can make the most bizarre grotesquerie not only believable but funny (such as the scene at a Chinese restaurant in Marie and Bruce in which the couple unwillingly overhear a conversation at the next table about shitting blood). His plays never have elaborate plots surveying global events; they usually have to do with life as it is lived in the body, this very minute. His characters are always getting sick, throwing up, eating, or weeping, in the throes of sexual mania or undergoing huge emotional mood swings. Most of his plays, none of which lasts much longer than an hour, observe an elegant, day-to-night unity. The final scenes usually portray a man and a woman, still together despite all the upheavals that can occur in a day, or a life. And the last moment of the play will be like the last moment before one day becomes another, a moment filled with terror and inevitability: you're either sleeping or awake, alive or dead. If the art part of today's theater is dominated by Sam Shepard's jangly frontier spirit and Lanford Wilson's search for a new family among communities of misfits, Wally Shawn has appointed himself the secretary of the interior, cataloging the cold-sweat nightmares that lurk behind the placid face of everyday life.

"What I'm really involved in when I'm writing is something that no one every mentions when they see any play," says Shawn. "Writing is like trying to make gunpowder out of chemicals. You have these words and sentences and the strange meanings and associations that are attached to the words and sentences, and you're somehow cooking these things all up so that they suddenly explode and have a powerful effect. That's what absorbs me from day to day in writing a play."

Shawn's verbal explosives have won him staunch supporters and powerful allies. Joe Papp has called him "one of the most important dramatists of our time," and the mere mention of Wally's name immediately coaxes an affectionate grin from eminent supporters who span a range from John Guare to Bette Midler. Newsweek critic Jack Kroll recalls commiserating with playwright David Mamet a few years ago about the sad state of the theater before excitedly agreeing that the only thing worth seeing at the moment was Marie and Bruce. That play, a day in the life of a marriage that flows from breakfast battles to daydreamy monologues to a hilariously inane cocktail party, is the perfect distillation of Shawn's penchant for what The Village Voice's Michael Feingold called "tragedy redone in the bright, acrylic colors of modern party-going."

But the powerful effect that Shawn's plays have is not always positive. When he approached one prominent European critic with The Hospital Play, his most ambitious and undeniably most gruesome script, the critic pounded his desk and declared, "I will stake my career on the failure of this play!" The gleefully vicious John Simon had this to say: "Written (if that is the word for it) by Wallace Shawn, one of the worst and unsightliest actors in this city, Marie and Bruce is the kind of play that, if either our drama critics or our garbage collectors did their work properly, could not have survived one night at the Public Theatre." And when Our Late Night opened at the Public Theatre, the language of the play -- particularly the febrile description of satyriasis -- drove the audience crazy. "Some were shouting," Joe Papp later recalled, "and one man got up and walked around in a menacing way. They didn't even know they were doing it. Wally was looking around the theater, very perplexed -- he didn't realize he had gotten rid of his own sexual mania and given it to everybody else."

A small, painfully reserved man with blue eyes the color of lake water, William Shawn hardly seems capable of spawning a child who writes lines like "I'd like to put my hand up your dress, to feel the sweat. I want to see inside your mouth..." for a living. Actually, Mr. Shawn looks like the kind of father who might very well wash a kid's mouth out with soap for writing plays like the kind Wally writes.

But underneath that severe, proper exterior obviously beats the heart of a proud father. We are in his New Yorker office. Over Shawn's impeccably groomed shoulder I can see hanging on his wall a handmade calendar that must be thirty years old, which is inscribed TO DADDY FROM WALLY. It contrasts sweetly with the Talk of the Town galleys and Institute for Policy Studies reports arranged in neat piles on the elder Shawn's desk, and I wonder if he cherishes this memento because it might be the most wholesome work of art Wally ever created.

Shawn says he has seen all the movies his son has acted in, including oddities like A Little Sex and Strong Medicine, and all his produced plays. It was he, in fact, who spurred Wally's theatrical career by presenting him with a puppet theater when he was fifteen. "Wallace read everything by Beckett and Eugene O'Neill when he was thirteen and fourteen, which was fairly unusual for someone that age," Shawn recalls in his high, quavery voice. "And then he and his brother would write these puppet shows, one big one a year, usually around Christmas. They weren't hasty or haphazard productions, either. They were quite ambitious. I remember one called Fins and Feet, and there was an adaptation of Paradise Lost that went on for hours."

As William Shawn speaks I notice a bulletin board lined with family photographs and ask permission to inspect them more closely. Shawn agrees a bit nervously, and he points out which picture are of Wallace (Wally's father always called him "Wallace"), which are of Allen, who is five years younger than Wally, and which are of Mary, Allen's twin sister, who was born retarded and has been institutionalized since childhood.

The snapshot that sticks with me the most is one of Wally at age twenty-two in which he looks much younger, a chubby-faced Huckleberry Finn. I've been trying to imagine what his father makes of the disparity between Wally-the-kooky-actor and Wally-the- calculating-playwright, but I realize that to William Shawn, Wally will always be this golden youth, this Huckleberry boy. And, of course, that's the other persona that Wally can adopt or reject whenever it suits him: the Son of the Famous Father.

People tend to assume that Shawn has something against his father. What better proof can there be than the fact that he has devoted his adult life to writing unnerving comedies about people weeping and vomiting and screwing in bungalows, rather than a book about the effects of nuclear holocaust like that nice Jonathan Schell's? When Wally tells me that he gave up the idea of being a writer when he went to college, I figure it must have been another blow against the paternal empire -- a stubborn attempt to become something other than what he was raised to be. But it's not that simple.

"I wanted to go into politics and work as a civil servant," he recalls back at the hotel. "When I went off to college, I felt the world was in such a bad way that everyone should devote themselves to ending the arms race and preventing nuclear war and solving the problems of global poverty.

"I have come to a somewhat more complex analysis," he continues dryly, "in that I no longer think that it's enough for a few well-meaning Harvard graduates to sit in offices and carry out some bureaucratic tasks conscientiously. I realize that the problems of the world are caused largely by things that are inside people's heads, and it's entirely possible that by altering people's consciousness a writer or a musician might do something that would improve the world situation. I mean --"

He hesitates, embarrassed, and starts to blush. "It just gets very elaborate when one gets into one's whole philosophy of life," he says sheepishly, "but, you know...well, why is there war in the world?" The air in the room feels heavy and thick all of a sudden, but Shawn presses on. "There are real disputes between nations, and it may be that we'll never get rid of wars until we end the nation-state as an institution. But it's also true that if every single person in the whole world were exactly father, for example, somehow there would be fewer wars, because there's just something about his personality that, if everybody were like him, people would be seeking a peaceful resolution of their differences. Whereas if everybody were like Hitler, there would be wars all the time. So you think, well, what made Hitler like Hitler and my father like my father? It's the experience they've had and the people they've met and the artistic works that have influenced them."

Shawn stops and coughs. End of speech. "So I've come to believe," he says, "that artistic works may have their place in saving the world." It was that conviction that encouraged him to write his first play for a contest at Oxford. "I thought it was the best play that anybody's ever written," says Wally. "I thought it was the answer to the war in Vietnam. I thought they would rename the country after me when people saw that play!" Instead, most people reacted to the play, which has never been produced, "as if they'd been given a handful of blank pieces of paper."

Wally reports this rejection equanimously, almost merrily. "I went through many years when no one liked anything I wrote," he explains. "In fact, still today, even though people have come to enjoy my funny face and enjoy seeing me act, my plays are still not liked any better than they were. The thing is," he says, imperturbably rocking back and forth in his chair, "I'm in this really pathetic position that I really take myself seriously as an American writer, just like Philip Roth is an American writer. People publish Philip Roth's books, they should put on my plays. But I realize that is a pathetic fantasy of mine."

Luckily, the burden of paying half his bills has been alleviated by his acting career, though he wonders how long he can spin it out. "Character actors can wear out their welcome," he says. "Of course, I'd be perfectly delighted to be a leading man, but no one has hired me to be one." Except Louis Malle. "Except Louis Malle. Which reminds me..."

Shawn excuses himself to make an important phone call. Watching him talk for a long stretch, I've noticed that his funny, somehow sensual face flickers back and forth between two images: sometimes he looks like a clown with his makeup off, and sometimes he looks like a clown with his makeup on. I once innocently asked him if he always looked the way he looks now, and he bristled. "I really don't know. I don't know how I look, and I'm glad I don't. I just know that it's some strange way that I don't think of myself as looking. I'm perfectly content to view myself as a normal-looking person."

On the phone to Louis Malle's office in Los Angeles, Shawn is having what is, for him, a normal conversation. "Would you tell him that Wally called? W-A-L-L-Y. When do you think would be a good time to call him?...I'm not really at one, so I'll try back a couple of times, and if that doesn't work we'll try something else. I hate to bother and bore you." He listens patiently. "Yes, Wally Shawn. S-H-A-W-N, and he probably knows me just -- just even by my first name alone! But even if he doesn't, that's my last name." One of the two names does the trick, because Malle is instantly on the phone. "Hi, I'm good, how are you?"

My Dinner with Andre, the film he made with Louis Malle, may be the only work he's done that left Shawn completely satisfied. What seems on screen to be a simple, straightforward effort -- as his brother, Allen, points out, it's like one of their childhood puppet shows, a tableau with two characters talking -- actually took months of taping and whittling down over one hundred hours of conversations with Andre Gregory. They began with a PBS grant and only a vague, but urgent, purpose.

"We were both interested in doing something that lacked the demonic intensity that characterized all my plays and all his productions," says Shawn, off the phone with Malle and back in his chair rocking again. "When I had this thought of just doing this thing with him and me, it was obvious that this would open up a whole new universe I'd been dying to explore in writing but never knew how.

"For instance, there is a moment in My Dinner with Andre when he [Andre] is talking about a man who saw a faun in a garden. I sort of don't particularly react because I think he's talking about a baby deer. He says no, I'm talking about those other kinds of fauns, and I don't know what he's talking about because I didn't know that's the word for that little Pan-like creature. Well, now, I've always dreamed of being able to write about a moment like that but I've never been able to because my plays are too intense. So that little moment of misunderstanding between two people is delightful and fascinating to me, because that's what a large part of life is made up of."

A large part of the movie is made up of Andre Gregory's fabulous adventures, from being buried alive during Halloween party games on Richard Avedon's Montauk estate to eating sand in the Sahara. But My Dinner with Andre is much less autobiographically accurate about Shawn. In fact, he does a very curious thing: given the opportunity to integrate his conflicting personae, the silly actor and the serious writer, he does everything he can to keep the two separate. He plays up the Kooky Actor to the hilt by revealing his attachment to his electric blanket, his thrill at the cold cup of coffee that no cockroach has died in overnight, his fervent conviction that reality can be perceived just as powerfully by going to the cigar store next door as by climbing Mount Everest. The Calculating Playwright and the Son of the Famous Father never show their faces. The only hint you get of Wally's real life in My Dinner with Andre is the opening monologue, in which he says, "I grew up on the Upper East Side, and when I was ten years old I was rich, I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I'm thirty-six, and all I think about is money."

Money is a complicated issue for Shawn. For all its success, My Dinner with Andre hardly made him rich. "Oh, I haven't made two cents from it. I haven't made one farthing!" he says, his normally penetrating tenor voice rising a few notches in pitch.

Still, disbelief and scorn wilt into a kind of amused resignation. "When the movie was first successful, I thought I would make a lot of money from it. But now it's just another kind of fantasy," Shawn sighs. "I think it's pretty arbitrary the way money is distributed in the first place. I've worked for years and years writing plays and got no money for it. And I've had this experience now where for two rather amusing days that I spent being electrocuted by a giant insect in a film called Strange Invaders I made more money than I made in a year as a Latin teacher."

Today's lesson in the unequal distribution of wealth takes us to the Odeon restaurant in lower Manhattan. In this chrome and mirror- paneled restaurant frequented by celebrities at night and Wall Street types during the day, I'm meeting Wally and his girlfriend, Debby Eisenberg, for lunch. Debby is tall, dark, hawk-nosed, and oddly beautiful in her own way, with dark patches of fine-lined purple beneath her eyes. As was revealed in My Dinner with Andre, cruel circumstance has forced her to work three nights a week as a waitress in recent years. Very occasionally, she writes. Her play Pastorale, a smashing off-Broadway success last year, is an extremely funny comedy about a group of indolent, post-Sixties kids hanging out in Woodstock eating junk food, taking acid, and talking that loopy kind of talk people absentmindedly spew when they can't be bothered with literacy. "It's so weird. What a person is, is an issue."

At first encounter, Wally and Debby seem aloof and slightly forbidding. They're very sweet and polite, but their work is so filled with veiled misanthropy -- veiled in humor -- and dark reflections on relationships between men and women, that you can imagine them, like Scott and Zelda, secretly collecting all the ladies' purses at a party and boiling them in tomato sauce. If show-biz people revere Wally, others have felt the sting of his aristocratic snobbishness. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, reviewing My Dinner with Andre, noted, "I've known Wally Shawn intermittently over a twenty-two-year period, and he's just about as nice as anyone can possibly be to someone he regards as a social inferior."

For a short while we are talking and all is predictably genteel. But wait! There's a commotion at the Odeon. At the next table, a teacup has been dropped and shattered. Wally leaps to his feet and stands protectively behind Debby, her long fingers wrap themselves around Wally's elbow and tighten, and suddenly this formidable couple resemble nothing so much as two of Edward Koren's furry, frightened people shrinking from...a broken teacup.

I have to smile to myself -- this is probably the first unselfconscious gesture I've seen Shawn perform, and it reveals the helplessly emotional person that his colorfully eccentric "personality" was designed to conceal.

Shawn steps away for a few minutes to conduct one of his accursed errands. He has to cash a check from Columbia Pictures at one bank and then rush to his own bank before it closes to deposit the money so he can pay his bills. While he's off improving his cash-flow situation, Debby loosens up a bit. "People like to speculate about Wally and his father," she says. "I think one of the critics wrote something in a review like, 'He just writes this stuff to get at his father.' Maybe they're right, but who can tell, and the point is -- so what?" People might also wonder if Debby and Wally are like Marie and Bruce, a turbulently interdependent couple loving and cursing each other by turns. "I'm sure they do. Well," she says with a meaningful look, "it doesn't come from nowhere."

That's exactly the point, though. In a way, Shawn would like you to believe that his work does come from nowhere -- that it is tortured out of the ether by a lonely and misunderstood writer staring at the peeling walls of a fleabag hotel. To a certain extent, you can go along with this pretense. It's true that few playwrights force themselves to return again and again to the dark mysteries of everyday humanity and find drama there, as Wally Shawn does. Few give themselves the relentless challenge of overthrowing centuries of dramatic convention and inventing new structures, even new languages, to describe their feverish dreams. And when you consider the trivial and second-rate dramas routinely honored with commercial success and prestigious awards, he seems about as underappreciated as a major contemporary writer can be.

But Wally Shawn is hardly one of the have-nots of this world. He is completely a product of his privileged background, and although he may have tried for years to conceal it, he knows that background gives him advantages that he will never lose. He has the best connections a writer could want, and the best agents (Luis Sanjurjo of ICM for writing, Jeff Hunter for acting) to market his work. His friends include the best and the brightest in the fields of theater, film, and journalism, and he's an intimate part of the peculiar and notoriously inbred world of The New Yorker, where everyone is related, it seems, by marriage or blood. And, of course, Wally inherited his compassion and his intellectual curiosity, as well as that touch of status- consciousness, from one of American publishing's most distinguished editors ever.

None of that is visible from a distance. Approaching from afar, you just see the little weirdo with the mad cackle and the fringe of hair. The closer you get, the more he loses that strangeness, and you see him as warm and human and friendly and smart and wise. But Shawn carefully constructs the persona by which he wishes to be known, and if you try to slip past it, he starts throwing up the defenses, and strangeness sets in again. It's like looking back over your shoulder and catching the hostility behind the plastic smile.

Why would anyone go to the effort of erecting such an elaborate masquerade? Perhaps it's the upper-class guilt of some millionaires who are quick to assure you that money isn't everything; or the celebrities who sniffle that it's lonely at the top. Perhaps it's animal instinct. "If you want to attack me, attack me for my looks or my quirky eating habits, things I don't care about," Shawn's oafish self-portrait in My Dinner with Andre seems to say. "Anything that matters -- my work, my family, my friends -- I'm not going to show you." Or perhaps it's the existential revenge of someone whom the world sees as a clown but who sees himself as a king. Just as camp, the extravagant style of mocking convention, expresses the homosexual's shock of self-discovery, Wally Shawn's through-the- looking-glass persona and his discomfiting, inside-out dramas reveal the same truth over and over: You can't judge a person by what he looks like or where he came from; the real secret to someone's personality lies somewhere within, and it's so strange as to be practically unknowable.

Sometimes Shawn looks so strange as to be practically unrecognizable. When Debby and I make our way out of the Odeon to meet him, he is standing on the sidewalk disguised in a huge, shapeless topcoat and a bright-red woolen scarf, with a runny nose and those rickety glasses. I don't think he realizes how geeky he looks, and nobody else on the street seems to notice.

"New Yorkers don't scare me the way people in most American cities generally scare me," says Shawn, waving goodbye to Debby as she heads uptown for an appointment. We walk a few blocks in the sunlight of a chilly afternoon. "In most American cities, I feel that the people on the street are brutes and bullies and that I'm a little worm that they would like to crush, the sort of person they don't like to have in their town. New York is a place where there are a lot of people in despair, and if you rub them the wrong way they may go berserk and kill you. But for some reason a huge man in a suit with a frighteningly opaque expression is more terrifying to me than a sort of deranged-looking person in a T-shirt."

As Shawn proclaims his feeling of safety in a metropolis that scares tourists to death, and expresses his fear of corn-fed all-Americans, I feel like I'm walking along with a New York version of R. Crumb's Mister Natural. "The wealth and power of this country are basically involved in some very, very crazy activities. I find the mentality of the people who actually run the country frightening and beyond comprehension," he says as we look for a cab to take him back to his hotel. "In most cities you go to in the United States, the people on the street remind me of the Reagan people, whereas in New York you don't see many people like that."

He has a point. You look one way and see jogging women wearing Sony Walkmans. You look another way and see black men in shabby raincoats ducking into a doughnut shop to avoid the cold. You turn back to Wally Shawn, but he's gone, a tiny spot in the back seat of a cab, disappearing into the dusk.

Esquire, 1983