L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry News Contacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Theatre in Review

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

Theatre in Review: The Fears (Pershing Square Signature Center)

Maddie Corman, Mehran Khaghani. Photo: Daniel Rader

As it happens, Buddhism is easy to spoof; maybe too easy. That's the takeaway from The Fears, which assembles a support group of adults, all of them traumatized in childhood, for weekly sessions at an Eastern religion center where they practice letting go of their accumulated rage and terror. It's putting it mildly to say that it's an uphill climb.

The assembled parties include Rosa, who is given to panic attacks about her health; the clinically depressed Katie, who has fallen in with a cult named Children of Death; Fiz, the lovelorn manager of a strip club; Mark, an actor whose career is going nowhere; and Suzanne, the faintly enigmatic elder in the room. Presiding over them is Maia, a disciple of the revered Sunam, the group's now-departed founder. Dressed in indescribable layers of various fabrics, her hair a collapsed rat's nest, she invests each murmured "mmmm" with a dictionary's worth of meanings. Passive-aggressively insisting that she isn't in charge, she instructs the others in exercises -- for example, imagining their abusers as vulnerable five-year-olds -- that are often laughably ill-suited to the moment. (My favorite is "Weather on the 1s," in which everyone pauses to take the room's emotional temperature; rest assured it is usually sullen verging on stormy.)

The Fears starts off on a note of dry amusement with everyone taking part in a moment of centering silence. Since they are in New York, their meditation is interrupted by traffic noises, power drills, and a volley of F-bombs. The bit is so successful that it is repeated, albeit to diminishing effect. It's also a preview of things to come: Only fifteen or so minutes in, it is blindingly obvious that, before too long, emotional mayhem will break out.

The catalyst for trouble is new-recruit Thea, simmering with fury over the death of mother, decades earlier, in the notorious Lockerbie bombing. Rather than embrace Maia's live-and-let live approach, Thea is a skeptic about spiritual matters and a positive Javert when it comes to assigning blame for the world's crimes. She has delved, obsessively, into world history, going back to Alexander the Great to assemble a dossier that indicts colonialism and the American empire for her mother's killing. "She's got a twenty-million-year timeline of every horrible thing that's ever happened," says Mark, who ought to know, since he is her boyfriend. This little detail comes out later rather than sooner, causing everyone else to feel deceived.

Playwright Emma Sheanshang -- who, it's safe to say, has studied the works of Tracy Letts very, very closely -- wants us to see this menagerie as equally laughable and pitiable, but she double-crosses herself by rendering the characters so skimpily that they barely seem to exist. One of the house rules is that nobody is supposed to discuss past wounds, a strategy that makes it difficult to know anything about them. Questions abound: How did Mark and Thea, who have nothing in common, ever get together? What, exactly, is the cult to which Katie belongs? Is it anything more than a punch line? A revelation about Fiz's personal life begs for a follow-up it doesn't get. The play deals in easy laughs and manipulative twists, climaxing in a flurry of last-minute shockers (including a real showstopper about Rosa's father) that strain credulity, leading to an epic pillow fight that feels like a playwright's last resort.

Whatever producer Steven Soderbergh saw in this script, compelling him to take a flyer on the theatre, is mysterious. But director Dan Algrant, who also works in film and television, does a solid job of keeping the proceedings moving at a good pace. He also had the good sense to cast Maddie Corman as Maia, her pregnant pauses and deadpan reactions providing most of the comedy on offer. Kerry Bishé fulminates expertly as Thea, Natalie Woolams-Torres' Rosa skates deftly along the edge of panic, and Carl Hendrick Louis brings a kind of baffled decency to Mark, especially when discussing his decision "to practice non-aggressive biking." If Jess Gabor (Katie), Mehran Khaghani (Fiz), and Robyn Peterson (Suzanne) are less memorable, it's likely because their characters are underwritten to the vanishing point.

In other respects, the production is a solidly professional job, including Jo Winiarski's garishly painted conference-room set, Jeff Croiter's institutional lighting (he also creates some beautifully moody transitions), and Jane Shaw's sound design, which fills the space with evidence of the outside world. David Robinson's costumes are well-observed, especially Maia's bizarre ensembles, aided by Jimmy Goode's hair and makeup design.

The Fears isn't terrible, but it tips its hand too early; Sheanshang has a good ear, especially for the clichés of pop psychology. (The participants are known as the Fearless Warriors, a name that, one of them notes with dismay, has led to the general impression around the center that they are a "terminal illness group.") But she never considers the possibility that Buddhist practice might actually provide some form of healing, instead leaving the characters to follow their preordained patterns. She's also not especially gifted at juggling farcical and tragic elements. Indeed, for a play about our darkest emotions, the results are pretty darn mild. --David Barbour

(19 May 2023)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook