"The Chinese Art of Placement"

Through July 18

Woolly Mammoth Theatre

Tickets: 703/218-6500

Every few years, like a locust, Howard Shalwitz shows up onstage. His duties as Woolly Mammoth's artistic director and frequent stage director leave him little time for acting. Except when he sees a great role come along, as it did in Stanley Rutherford's one-man play, "The Chinese Art of Placement."

Shalwitz (pictured at left) plays a sweet neurotic, an ultra-geek with an excruciating past and an uncertain future. But he's facing it bravely, and that mix of debilitating insecurity and improbable optimism is what sucked Shalwitz into the part.

"I totally identify with this character," he says. "I was hesitant about doing a solo play, but I just loved the character."

Shalwitz has done a one-man show before -- Wallace Shawn's "The Fever" in 1991 -- and it nearly ended his acting career.

"After I did `The Fever' I thought I'd given up acting -- I simply didn't have time for it," says Shalwitz. Then in 1996, "The Gigli Concert" came along. After looking for another actor to play the leading role, Shalwitz decided to do it himself.

"It turned my feelings about acting around," he says. "It was very satisfying, and, of course, enormously successful. I decided I need to look for a role every couple of years."

Acting, he adds, "makes me understand what the root of theater is. People come to see actors act. That's what's important."

Hmmm. We sense a pattern. "The Fever" was a one-man show, "Gigli" was nearly so, with only two other minor characters, and now he's in another one-man show. So is Shalwitz some kind of egomaniac (nah!), who won't perform anything other than a dominating role?

After he's finished laughing, Shalwitz gives a pragmatic answer. "I'd love to do a small role, but I wait until something big and exciting comes along. And the minor roles don't compel you as much." Besides, he says, there's nothing as challenging, thrilling and simply terrifying as a solo show. With no one else to focus on, no partner but the audience, there's only one way to get through it.

Says Shalwitz: "You have to step on the roller coaster every night and just let it take you."