The world premiere of Emma Sheanshang’s The Fears is a hilarious and poignant satire on self-help groups and the sort of people who take their emotional temperature all day long – literally. It is the latest in a new genre of plays in which the humor comes from something that may be painful but it is still possible to laugh at. Smoothly and astutely directed by Dan Algrant who has mainly worked in film, the ensemble of seven actors are entirely convincing as a group of damaged people who meet once a week at a Buddhist center in New York City to deal with early traumas that are keeping them from moving on in their lives. While the play fails to make a bigger statement, it remains entertaining and engrossing throughout.
The Fearless Warriors group has met every Tuesday night for the last seven years, first under the leadership of Sunam assisted by Maia and now for the last five months Maia alone since Sunam left to run the center in Majorca. Tonight they are joined by Thea who turns out to be Mark’s partner, though this is not usually allowed. Over the course of five sessions we get to know both the routines as well as the members of the group. The Buddhist jargon is humorous as it feels as though fifty dollar words are being used to explain very simple concepts, while many will be unfamiliar to most theatergoers (such as “make a TREE,” “take tea,” “speak to Little Rosa,” etc.) Some are explained to Thea who is new at this form of therapy.
Each session begins with the ringing of a gong. Then participants are asked to “touch in,” that is explain the week they have had. Periodically, they are asked for “the weather on the ones” (an expression from Spectrum New York I News 1) in which they describe how they are feeling at that moment. At one session they are all asked to list “The Fears,” their most traumatic dread. Although they are not supposed to talk about their childhood traumas, several blurt it out as though they can’t stop thinking about it, nor do we find out what they all do for a living.
As group leader, Maia (Maddie Corman) seems to be the most together person in the room, but ultimately we discover through a recovered repressed memory that she is the most betrayed. Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres), a wife and mother of one son, is subject to panic attacks and has just bought a Fit Bit in order to check her stress levels all day long. Fiz (Mehran Khaghani) reveals almost immediately that he was repeated raped as a child by his father but his mother refused to believe it, in fact blaming him for making up the accusation.
Thea (Kerry Bishé) has never gotten over losing her mother when she was six in the Lockerbie terrorist bombing, a flight she was supposed to be on herself. Mark (Carl Hendrick Louis) is a 41-year-old Black actor who has not yet made it and is tired of working as a waiter to pay his bills. Suzanne (Robyn Peterson) was assaulted by someone who was never prosecuted successfully and is still out there, but she has made peace with the outcome. Katie (Jess Gabor), who mostly hides on the sofa, is the most damaged: unable to walk a down a street, eat, sleep, sit as she describes it herself.
The infighting and wrangling between the participants is hilarious as well as some of the incredible things that happen to them or that they say. Thea, a historian, has made a chart of 20 million years of human atrocities and talks of Alexander the Great as though he is a contemporary. Rosa receives an email that she has 43 brothers and sisters as her father was a sperm donor and her siblings have a club called “Children of Carlos,” which is a lot to grasp at one time.
The entire cast is excellent at their own particular brands of trauma. Both Corman’s Maia and Peterson’s Suzanne appear to be the most together of the group, with Peterson representing the voice of reason, often telling the others a truth they do not want to hear. Woolams-Torres’ Rosa and Khaghani’s Fiz are hilarious as self-dramatizing people who turn everything that happens to them into an epic event. Gabor’s Katie is the most depressed, saying little, until she has a spectacular attack and storms out. Bishé’s Thea with her theories of history seems over-the-top until we find out about her childhood trauma. Louis’ soft-spoken Mark seems to be well-adjusted until we hear about his disappointment with his career.
Jo Winiarski’s detailed setting for the meeting room is cleverly shifted for each of the five scene so that our view of the seven participants changes. The costumes by David Robinson define the characters but keep them consistent through subtle changes. Jane Shaw is credited with the hilarious sound effects from outside the window and in the hallway outside the room: jack-hammering just when the group is starting, violent cursing from the street, personal remarks from people coming out of the “30s and Under” group from across the hall, elevator noises, revving up a motorcycle which drowns out the conversation, etc. The lighting by Jeff Croiter subtly changes as the weeks pass and it gets darker earlier. Credit director Dan Algrant for keeping all of the disparate elements together while still creating a poignant comedy satire.
The Fears (through June 18, 2023)
Steven Soderbergh Presents
Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thefearsplay.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission