“This is the weather … and we’re just in it,” says Maia, the facilitator of a Buddhist trauma group at the center of Emma Sheanshang’s new play, “The Fears.” She’s talking about the mood in the room — a small, underwhelming one with mismatched office chairs set around a low wooden table — where she and six others regularly meet to talk through storms of rage, sorrow and panic. Or at least try to: interpersonal conflicts, clashing neuroses and a falling domino effect of triggers cause more breakdowns than breakthroughs, until even the group’s philosophical foundation starts to fall apart.
From the first scene of this intriguing but lacking play, presented by the filmmaker Steven Soderbergh at the Pershing Square Signature Center, we get a clear window into the characters’ personalities. Dan Algrant’s direction is precise and telling, particularly in the entrances. Thea (Kerry Bishé), the newbie, drifts in skeptically. Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres), a stickler for rules, bustles in authoritatively. Fiz (Mehran Khaghani, comical even as a gay stereotype) bursts in with a declarative flourish, while the measured Suzanne (Robyn Peterson), always at odds with Fiz, strolls by demurely. Maia (Maddie Corman), overdressed in multiple layers, flutters in like a light breeze, and Mark (a stiff Carl Hendrick Louis) arrives late, flustered and eager. Katie (a painfully fragile Jess Gabor), a young goth, rushes in last, and withdraws into herself.
Each person’s trauma is either explicitly spelled out, or hinted at through their individual triggers, which help explain, for example, why Fiz’s sister is a touchy subject, or why Thea has an encyclopedic knowledge of every traumatic event the world has endured.
Sheanshang’s depiction of spiritualism has a satirical bite, with Maia’s performative shows of empathy — purrs and “mms” of affirmation — and the group members’ rigorous policing of one another’s responses, which is more about control than about support. But sometimes it seems as if “The Fears” is targeting Buddhism rather than the derivative school of thought — developed by a revered yet unseen male figure — practiced by the group. And the use of the characters’ quirks as punch lines verges on cruel (especially because several were victims of childhood sexual abuse) and undercuts the show’s emotional resonance.