“How do we fight evil without becoming evil?” asks Ethan, one of the two adult characters in “Fear,” a play by Matt Williams. “Isn’t that the central question of the age, this age of fear?”
“Back the fuck off,” replies Phil, the second adult.
The two adults are standing over a teenager named Jamie who is tied to a chair. Phil, a plumber, has kidnapped Jamie, and dragged him into this abandoned tool shed in the woods outside Princeton, New Jersey. Ethan, a professor, is trying to rescue Jamie.
But the picture is not what it might seem in this suspenseful drama.
An eight-year-old girl from the neighborhood is missing, and Phil (Enrico Colantoni, who plays the genial father in Veronica Mars), has reason to suspect that Jamie (Alexander Garfin) has something to do with it. Or does he?
Is Jamie a psychopath or simply misunderstood – or both? Does Phil have more involvement in this story than he’s letting on? And what about Ethan (Obi Abili); why was he out in the woods?
Who’s telling the truth?
That’s the central question, the answer ever-shifting, in this second Off-Broadway play this year by Williams, who is credited with creating, producing and/or writing such once-popular TV series as Home Improvement, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne.
“Fear,” it must be said, is far better than his first, “Actually, We’re F—ed,” which was a comedy. Williams has picked a different genre, and more effectively asks more or less the same underlying question: How one can live in a troubling world? But I’m afraid there’s an even more basic question that “Fear” provokes:
Why doesn’t Ethan just get the police?
The police, we’re told, are all over the woods the three men are in, looking for the little girl; we can hear their sirens, and even the crackle of their police radios. So why is Ethan staying in the tool shed trying to reason with the unreasonable, angry Phil? The playwright does try to come up with some explanations that get the three characters in the shed and keep them there, but these are weak, and frequently undermined. One stark example: Ethan tries to call the police on his cell phone (which is itself odd since, as I said, they’re nearby), but he can’t get any reception – yet Phil’s cell phone works fine, as we know because he takes time out from terrorizing Jamie to call his children more than once. These are ham-handed interludes, which I presume Williams inserted to allow scenes between Jamie and Ethan alone, so that Jamie can plant seeds of suspicion about Phil. There are several such unrealistic choices by the playwright in a play that requires a vigorous suspension of disbelief.
Yet, if you can get over that admittedly high hurdle, “Fear” offers three good actors constantly playing with our perspective – not only about what happened and who did what, but about such issues as moral relativism, and class tensions, and…fear.
“Every time one of my kids leaves the house, you know what Ido?” Phil says at one point. “I take a mental photograph, emblaze an image of them in my brain. Because it could be the last time I see them. “
Lucille Lortel Theater
Written by Matt Williams; Directed by Tea Alagic
Scenic design by Andrew Boyce, lighting design by D.M. Wood, costume design by Oana Botez, sound design by Jane Shaw, fight director J. David Brimmer
Cast: Obi Abili, Enrico Colantoni and Alexander Garfin
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $65-$85. “mobile rush” on TodayTix: $20
Fear is on stage through December 8, 2019