The new Off-Broadway play The Fears marks the producing debut of film and television director Steven Soderbergh; it’s rare that a producer is a selling point for a particular show (a company, sure, but rarely an above-the-line producer), but in this case, it promised to be a point in the show’s favor. Love or hate Soderbergh’s own work–and I can go either way–it’s usually unexpected or offbeat somehow, and when he misses, it’s mostly in the direction of an interesting experiment that didn’t quite pan out rather than unobjectionable and uninteresting.
Which is why The Fears is so odd: It’s so utterly generic. It’s not a debacle, but it feels like it was created by an algorithm more interested in ticking boxes off a list of dramaturgical elements (one character from column A, three emotional revelations from column B) than in a cohesive whole; there’s a void at its core. Emma Sheanshang’s script brings some moments of dark humor and a handful of beats that have emotional impact, but not enough of either to give a solid foundation in tone or to ground the characters in a shared world. The cast of characters could have been created as a demographically representative focus group: one forty-something Black man; one middle-aged Latinx mother, peppering her language with the requisite doses of Spanish; one queer man; one member of Gen Z; one older Catholic white woman; etc.
These people are members of a Buddhist meditation group for survivors of trauma. They all have horrifying backstories, but they’re not allowed to talk about them in group–but nor do we get a strong sense of their lives outside the traumas, of who they might be outside this room. (We get glimpses of the back stories; some of the characters are happy to break the rule, and some react to triggers in ways that fill in missing pieces.) The newest member, Thea (Kerry Bishé), for one, is eager to explain how the loss of her mother in the Lockerbie bombing has affected her life and her worldview–much more eager than to disclose that she joined the group in the first place because her boyfriend, Mark (Carl Hendrick Louis) seemed to get so much out of it. The revelation that Thea and Mark are a couple sends some other members into a state of high dudgeon and accusations of rule-breaking, but both stay. The other members are Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres), who feels like her ability to be a good parent has been permanently compromised by trauma; Suzanne (Robyn Peterson), a pragmatic matron who mixes her Catholic faith with the Buddhist practices outlined here; Fiz (Mehran Kaghani), whose estranged family is trying to make contact anew; and Katie (Jess Gabor), a severely damaged young woman who might have accidentally joined a satanic cult.
Much of the early part of the play sees group leader Maia (Maddie Corman) trying to run her normal session but having to stop frequently for someone to explain their jargon and practices to Thea, since Maia forgot to send her their introductory email. (There is a lot of jargon and ritual here; it’s not always clear whether the play is mocking or world-building.) In each scene, we’re in a different session, though the costumes provide more real indication of the passing of time than anything going on with the characters. (David Robinson’s costumes, in fact, do a lot of solid character work; Jane Shaw’s sound design, with its relentless urban background noise, also works well to conjure time and place.)
It’s hard to mark the passage of time, because we don’t really get a sense of anyone’s progress in the group; if anything, characters seem to grow less functional and more weighed down by their traumas as the piece goes on. Rosa temporarily loses custody of her children; Katie seems to be heading ever closer to catatonia; Fiz and Suzanne almost get in a fist fight. Is the group degenerating because Maia, always distractible and holding authority by placidity rather than strength,is trying, increasingly insistently, to get someone else to lead? When we find out why Maia’s trying to step away, it’s one of the few character arcs that seems motivated and cohesive. (Corman is also one of the stronger actors, but she’s also actually got a throughline to work with.)
Dan Algrant’s indifferent direction doesn’t help matters. It often felt like the actors had been left to make their own choices without much guidance; they seem to be playing to the audience more than to one another. (Corman and Robyn Peterson as Suzanne do the best at finding nuance in their roles.) And the staging itself is static at best and actively confusing at worst; the scene transitions, for example, drag in ways that slow down any momentum that the play had.
The frustrating thing is, there are glimpses of other stories in here, but the play doesn’t take us to any of them: What is Maia’s life beyond the Buddhist center? Why are Thea and Mark together in the first place? How did Suzanne, a staunch Catholic, find her place in a Buddhist group, and who is in her life outside this room? How did Katie meet the cultists she’s living with, and how does she find the strength to escape them? And beyond that, how do these people actually support and help one another?
It feels as if that Sheanshang is aiming for something like Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation–that claustrophobic intimacy, that sense of ritual, the way that consciously constructed interaction lays bare real character–but mimicking only its surface. And The Fears feels like it was reverse-engineered from the revelations that will come from the characters rather than built from the ground up. It’s hard to point to exactly what’s wrong with it, but even harder to point to anything that’s particularly right.