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The Fears

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 18, 2023

Mehran Khaghani, Maddie Corman, Robyn Peterson,
Carl Hendrick Louis, and Natalie Woolams-Torres

Photo by Daniel Rader
Construction noise, profanity-shouting pedestrians, non-stop emergency-vehicle sirens, and the booming music of pedicabs can certainly pose an obstacle for individuals hoping to find quiet serenity in New York City. For the characters who congregate weekly at a Buddhist center in Emma Sheanshang's The Fears, the external hubbub is nothing compared to the personal demons and inner turmoil that continuously disrupt the longed-for Zen energy in the room. The outbursts, alternately funny and poignant, make for good drama, though, and the play is convincingly performed by a fine cast in Steven Soderbergh's production currently playing at Manhattan's Pershing Square Signature Center. (The show is not part of the Signature Theatre Company lineup.)

Each of the seven members of the Buddhist group brings to the meeting "a little trauma," as one of the characters understatedly explains. They are, however, discouraged from talking about the scarring incidents since they are instructed to "stay in the present." This doesn't stop some of the characters from blurting out their experiences when they first meet Thea (Kerry Bishé), a newcomer to the group. Fiz (Mehran Khaghani), an obsessive-compulsive gay man, for instance, reveals nonchalantly that he was raped by his father from age eleven to thirteen.

Suzanne (Robyn Peterson), the most jaded member of the group, causally tells Thea that she was raped by a priest on a regular basis during high school. Next is Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres), a particularly high-strung mother of a small child. With the help of a Fitbit and breathing exercises, she boasts that she is effectively managing her stress. As she triumphantly declares at the start of a meeting, "The whole week I was so calm! Even when I was having a panic attack I was calm!"

Mark (Carl Hendrick Louis), a struggling actor, grew up in an abusive home and finds he takes out his anger while riding his bike through Manhattan. A breakthrough of sorts comes when he determines "to practice non-aggressive biking." The youngest and most distressed participant is Katie (Jess Gabor), who is severely depressed and may or may not be living among a cult.

The leader by default (since no single person is to have more authority than any other) is Maia (Maddie Corman). She has the most experience having learned the Buddhist techniques from the group's founder, Sunam, whose spirit still pervades the room. (Jo Winiarski designed the set, which effectively captures a deteriorating community room with mismatched furniture and Buddha icons placed randomly about. Jeff Croiter's lighting and particularly Jane Shaw's sound design nicely capture the New York milieu.)

Under Dan Algrant's direction, The Fears requires some patience from audiences. The production falters at first in its difficulty to establish a consistent tone. The first half or so comes across as too satirically flippant, and the laughs come a little too easily at the expense of in-depth characterization. Many of the group therapy techniques, for example, are presented comically, such as not saying "sorry" (followed by a series of apologies for apologizing in the first place), and directly addressing the child versions of themselves. There are also spontaneous emotional check-ins called "Weather on the Ones" (a reference to New York's local news channel).

Nevertheless, the last third of the play is quite moving, as the characters come to terms with their simmering anxiousness and long suppressed traumas. In some ways, the play is reminiscent of Bess Wohl's little masterpiece Small Mouth Sounds, which negotiates the laughter and pain brilliantly.

The actors work very well as an ensemble and each has a moment (or more) to shine. As the group leader trying to maintain control with all of the aphorisms, exercises, and vocal twitches she has acquired over the last few decades, Corman is a standout. Wearing South Asian prints and draped in flowing scarves (with kudos to David Robinson who designed the character-perfect costumes), she is devastating as she gradually reveals that the clothes and Buddhist principles are just a salve for the deeper wounds that have not yet healed.

A recurring refrain in the play is the notion that "we're not alone–we're in this together." At a time when tensions rise high and we come face to face with our big, little, and everyday fears, it's helpful to have that reminder every now and then.

The Fears
Through July 9, 2023
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: