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Theatre in Review: Fear (Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Enrico Colantoni, Alexander Garfin, Obi Abili. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Fear would be an ugly, disturbing thriller if only it were remotely convincing. The playwright, Matt Williams, sets out to graft a classic stage-shocker format onto today's rancid political divisions, and the sutures are all too visible. The action unfolds in a dilapidated toolshed in New Jersey, an unnerving environment that, as designed by Andrew Boyce, is the production's most reliable source of dread. The action gets right down to business with Phil, a middle-aged plumber, dragging in Jamie, a terrified teenage boy; only a couple of lines in, Phil is threatening to snap Jamie's neck. Clearly, Williams isn't one to trifle with exposition.

The situation soon becomes clear enough. An eight-year-old girl has disappeared, and Phil is part of the search party. Having seen Jamie loitering guiltily in the woods, he has assumed the worst, taking the boy prisoner, tying him up, gagging him, and trying to terrorize him into confessing. At a particularly fraught moment, in comes Ethan, an academic who lives nearby in the same housing development as Phil and Jamie. Gazing at this situation, he stands there, arms akimbo, saying, "Oh my God. What is this? What is... He's tied up." This is known as the deductive method.

Most of Fear hinges on an extended argument between Phil and Ethan about what to do with Jamie. The evidence against the boy consists of the charge that he was the last person to see the victim; in addition, he comes off as slightly shifty, although his changing answers can be chalked up to sheer terror at being held hostage by an apparent madman. Phil also suspects Jamie of spreading chaos in the neighborhood -- after all, somebody set the neighbor's cat on fire, ruined a backyard garden, and also burned the school locker belonging to Phil's son. (What this has to do with the crime under consideration is anybody's guess.) Anyway, there are long stretches of discussion in which Phil and Ethan consider Jamie's possible culpability -- which is rather ironic, since nobody seems to notice that Phil has -- only recently -- himself committed felonious assault.

Indeed, the search for the little girl is nothing more than the plot's McGuffin, an excuse for Williams' real agenda, which pits Phil, a working stiff bristling with class resentment, against Ethan, whose determinedly rational (and pedantic) approach to the most hysterical situations marks him as dripping with privilege. "You and your wife never associate with anyone," mutters Phil. "Not even a wave as you zip through the cul-de-sac in your little blue Prius." (This may be the worst insult Phil can muster.) He also calls Ethan "a pussy" for not practicing any religion, to which Ethan responds with a quote from Denis Diderot. You can imagine what is going through the trussed-up Jamie's mind while these two mouthpieces pursue their shallow red-versus-blue-America debate.

Williams compounds the implausibility of the central situation with a number of awkward devices. Ethan can't call the police because he has no cellphone coverage, but Phil mysteriously receives calls at regular intervals from his son, providing an excuse to get him offstage so Ethan and Jamie can have bonding moments. (This situation is explained with a lame joke about Verizon.) Phil uses his super-special skills at knot-tying, which make it impossible for Ethan to free Jamie. At one point, Jamie accuses Phil of physically abusing his son, claiming that he has noticed bruises up and down the boy's body in their high school's showers -- begging the question of why such marks are apparently invisible to everyone else in gym class. The more the conversations head down the blind alleys of Phil and Ethan's early years and their personal lives, the more one wants to ask: Does anyone remember that little girl? The one who vanished? Who might be dead? Then again, as the allegations of adultery, animal abuse, arson, and violence pile up, it seems that the street where these characters live is the craziest cul-de-sac since Knot's Landing went off the air.

I miss the days when thrillers were regular features of any theatre season, but Fear is too nastily manipulative to be any fun, the plot weighed down by red herrings and poorly motivated twists. The director, Tea Alagic, works at maintaining a mood of tension, but she can't keep so many nagging questions at bay. As Phil, Enrico Colantoni embraces the character's psychopathic tendencies -- for example, his penchant for pausing in the middle of the fray to contemplate a blister; by the time he proposes waterboarding Jamie with the contents of Ethan's thermos -- which, as it happens, doesn't contain enough to drown a fly -- I was hoping someone would bop him on the head. Obi Abili fares slightly better as Ethan, but the character's reactions ring far too false for the actor to succeed. Alexander Garfin, who resembles a younger Timothée Chalamet, gives a teasingly ambiguous performance that keeps one guessing about Jamie and his intentions.

In addition to Boyce's supremely menacing set, D.M. Wood's lighting feeds sunshine through the countless cracks in the walls and Jane Shaw's sound design works up some tension with a mix of police sirens and unsettling underscoring. (I also liked Phil's ringtone, taken from Stevie Wonder's "Superstition.") Oana Botez's costumes are right on the nose.

Fear ends with a twist that more or less renders pointless nearly everything we have seen; beyond that, I can say no more, except to add that the play is a dramatic halfway house, not suitable either for an amusing evening of manufactured thrills or a serious discussion of our current social divisions. It's all premise and no payoff. -- David Barbour

(7 November 2019)

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