Seven fragile urban souls, each survivors of some past trauma, meet weekly at a New York City Buddhist center where the noise of jackhammers and loudly cursing passers-by continually intrudes on the intended moments of silent meditation. There’s not much more calm within the group, who struggle not only with their own issues but with the dynamics of a fractious cohort that is familiar enough with each other’s buttons to push them occasionally, sometimes intentionally.
Those dynamics are the central thrust of Emma Sheanshang’s The Fears, a subdued, almost plot-free new play that squeezes considerable laughter from the ways in which even good-intentioned people can get under each other’s skins. (The show, presented by Steven Soderbergh, opened Thursday at the Pershing Square Signature Center.) Maddie Corman is magnificent as the leader of the group, Maia, a former disciple of the Buddhist center’s founder who projects a maternal ease with the conflicts that bubble to the surface of the group’s discussions. She’s the one who repeatedly introduces Buddhist principles like “planting a tree” and “touching in” to get individuals to focus on the here and now in hopes of moving beyond their past experiences.
It soon becomes clear that few of us are able to truly overcome the baggage of our histories — including Maia herself. We meet a fortysomething aspiring actor questioning his career (Carl Hendrick Louis); his girlfriend, still obsessing over the death of her mother in the 1988 terrorist bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland (Kerry Bishé); a Latina woman prone to panic attacks who trembles at the mere mention of the word cancer (Naralie Woolams-Torres); a sharp-tongued gay man who isn’t shy sharing his status as the survivor of sexual assault by his father (Mehran Khaghani); a prickly older white woman who lost both her parents as a girl (Robyn Peterson); and a goth-presenting Gen Zer who emerges quickly as the most emotionally fragile member of the group (Jess Gabor).
Dan Algrant, who previously collaborated with Sheanshang on the script for his 2012 indie film Greetings From Tim Buckley, allows his actors room to breathe, and breathe deeply, developing a rapport and group tension that feels natural. They show a pattern of needling and supporting each other, in turn, a rhythm that flows out of the therapeutic format of a script that mostly steers clear of over-the-top melodrama.
The effect is enhanced by Jo Winiarski’s minimalist set design, David Robinsons finely chosen costumes, Jane Shaw’s sound and Jeff Croiter’s careful lighting (subtly shifting our focus to the players who are either speaking or reacting to what is being said).
Even at 90 minutes, The Fears can feel a bit stretched — there’s not much in the way of narrative drive, nor do we get a reveal or catharsis for each of the characters. Late attempts to build tension, or at least sow chaos in the orderly flow of the sessions, sometimes stretch credulity. (A pillow fight, really?)
But what might seem shambolic in a dramatic sense can also be viewed as Shambhala-ic, in the Buddhist tradition of practicing courage and compassion while living in the secular world. And The Fears overflows with compassion, enough that we might be tempted to reject that Camus aphorism about hell being other people. If approached in the right way, Sheanshang’s meditators suggest, other people might also be our salvation.