Fiery Reentry: Howard Shalwitz Returns to the Stage in The Arsonists


Gwydion Suilebhan, the playwright who by day is Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s marketing chief, knows how to tailor a pitch. He hooked me on the idea of doing a feature about Woolly co-founder Howard Shalwitz’s return to acting after almost a decade away by suggesting that Shalwitz is DC theatre’s answer to John Cazale. I took him so literally that I had a couple of paragraphs to that effect that my first draft.

Gwydion Suilebhan, Woolly’s Director of Brand and Marketing but also an oft-produced playwright, likens Shalwitz to John Cazale, an actor now remembered mainly by pub-quiz champs and committed cinephiles. Before he died of cancer in 1978, Cazale appeared in only five feature films, but every one earned a Best Picture nomination. Three of them won; all remain revered. Probably most famous for his role as the hapless Fredo Corleone in the Godfather pictures, Cazale set a never-to-be-surpassed standard for quality control.

It’s an imperfect comparison. Part of the Cazale legend was its compression: He made five towering films in six years, and then he died. Shalwitz’s performances have been parceled out over decades. And though Shalwitz himself has usually been praised, reception to the shows overall has been more mixed-positive than universal adoration. (With the exception of Full Circle, his entire body of work as an actor predates my own tenure as a critic.) The Arsonists is only the third time he’s performed in Woolly’s airy, modern, Penn Quarter playhouse since the company moved into its permanent home a dozen years ago.

It was still a good idea for a story, so here’s the story. Thanks, Gwydion, and Howard, and everyone who talked to me or tried to get in touch with me for it, whether your comments ended up in the piece or not.

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