Stage thrillers are such a rare breed these days that even when an imperfect one comes along, it deserves attention. Matt Williams’ Fear, a taut three-hander about the charged encounter among two men and a teenager after the disappearance of an 8-year-old girl, frequently buckles under the weight of its contrivances. But it keeps you consistently intrigued throughout its concise 70-minute running time, thanks to the provocative setup, compelling performances and tightly controlled direction.
Fear proves gripping from the first moments, when we see a middle-aged man dragging a teen boy into an abandoned tool shed, his arm around the boy’s neck in a chokehold. The older man, Phil (Enrico Colantoni, Veronica Mars), is convinced that the 15-year-old Jamie (Alexander Garfin) either knows something about or is in fact responsible for the fate of the little girl who recently went missing near a suburban New Jersey lake.
Tying the struggling Jamie to a chair and angrily interrogating him, Phil is interrupted by the arrival of Ethan (Obi Abili, Showtime’s Billions), who had also been part of a search party looking for the missing child. Ethan expresses horror at Phil violently taking the situation into his own hands, telling him, “Unless you have tangible, verified evidence, or ocular proof that he has committed some kind of egregious act, you must let him go.”
That lofty language reflects Ethan’s status as a tenured Princeton University professor who teaches comparative literature. The educational and class difference between him and Phil, a blue-collar plumber, becomes a running theme in the play as the two men debate what to do with their suspect. Phil seems convinced of Jamie’s guilt, not only because he was the last person seen with the missing girl but also because he’s certain Jamie was responsible for a recent incident in which a cat was set on fire and burned alive.
Ethan argues that they should simply bring the boy to the police and leave it up to them to investigate. Phil has another idea in mind. He wants to waterboard Jamie and extract a confession, a plan that Ethan promptly squelches by emptying the contents of his water bottle onto the floor. As the two men continue to clash, various revelations emerge that transform their confrontation into something much more personal.
The playwright has crafted a compelling premise, albeit one that seems highly reminiscent of the 2013 thriller Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. But whereas that film never wavered in its dramatic intensity, Williams — a TV veteran who created such hit shows as Home Improvement and Roseanne and was a writer-producer on The Cosby Show — too often lets his sitcom instincts take hold. The suspense is sometimes undercut by comic one-liners and such distracting bits of business as Phil constantly having to walk outside to take phone calls from his children, signaled by his ringtone of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”
One also has to wonder if the two men would actually take the time, while there’s a teenager tied to a chair a few feet away, to engage in digressive debates about such things as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, cultural relativism and the respective merits of atheism and agnosticism.
There’s also a bit of credibility gap in the casting. It’s hard to believe that Ethan, even though he’s a bookish, bespectacled college professor, would be physically intimidated by Phil, since the strapping Abili is younger and far more physically imposing than Colantoni.
Despite its occasional missteps, Fear casts a tense spell. The play features some surprising twists, ending with an intriguing ambiguity rather than neatly tying every plot thread together. Colantoni and Abili are both excellent as the two men meeting under fateful circumstances, and Garfin (he provided the voice of Linus in The Peanuts Movie), although not always successful in conveying his character’s sudden personality shifts, generally holds his own.
Director Tea Alagi? delivers a gripping staging, abetted by Jane Shaw’s ominously rumbling sound design, which keeps us further on edge. Andrew Boyce’s expertly designed, weathered set is also terrific, even if the generous proportions of the tool shed reduce the necessary atmosphere of claustrophobia.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Obi Abili, Enrico Colantoni, Alexander Garfin
Playwright: Matt Williams
Director: Tea Alagi?
Set designer: Andrew Boyce
Costume designer: Oana Botez
Lighting designer: D.M. Wood
Sound designer: Jane Shaw
Presented by Cherry Lane Theatre, Julie Crosby/Cromono International, Marni Raab, David Nd Jenny Stone/Stone Boies Entertainment and David Youse