'The Fever Syndrome' review — an overwritten yet vivid family drama

The Fever Syndrome is at the Hampstead Theatre to 30 April.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Overwritten — at first enjoyably so and toward the end to diminishing returns – The Fever Syndrome takes its title from an auto-inflammatory affliction besetting 12-year-old Lily Cooper (Nancy Allsop) who at one point is seen writhing prostrate on the floor in agony as her anxious parents look on. But it doesn’t take much to extrapolate from Lily’s mysterious condition to a more generalised plague that has descended upon the Manhattan household seen to populate the multi-storied brownstone on full view in Lizzie Clachan’s impressive set.

From a raspy, outspoken paterfamilias riddled with Parkinson’s (Robert Lindsay, in superb form) on down through the generations, Alexis Zegerman’s play offers an assemblage in feverish thrall to bitterness, frustration, and – in one especially telling case – unreciprocated passion. And if you may feel as if you’ve been here before (the writing specifically invokes Albee and, no modesty here, Shakespeare), the terrain – and, in fact, the set - directly suggest August: Osage County, with that play’s forbidding matriarch here replaced by an equally blunt father.

But whereas Tracy Letts’s far-longer play builds to a cataclysmic catharsis, The Fever Syndrome loses its way after the interval. The ending feels less like a natural conclusion and more like a revved-up motor that has come sputtering to a halt.

That’s a shame given the many balls that Zegerman, an Englishwoman here casting her eye across the Atlantic, keeps tantalisingly in the air and the rich opportunities she has given an excellent cast, even when a few of the American accents start to stray. (This is happening more and more, for some reason.)

Commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club stateside but now given its world premiere in London, the play captures a familial fractiousness that transcends nationality, even if no one saw fit to correct the use of “disorientated” – an Anglicism over the ocean, which prefers the less-syllabic “disoriented.”

On the authenticity front, there’s an odd comment, too, about the notional value of the Myers abode, which seems peculiar given that most people would give their eyeteeth, or more, to inhabit an entire house within steps of Central Park, and renovations be damned.

That said, I was entirely absorbed up until the interval by the cross-currents of feeling between Lindsay’s sweary Richard, his woebegone younger (and third) wife Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath, sounding for all the world like Lorraine Bracco from Goodfellas), and Richard’s three children: the married Dot (Lisa Dillon, in expert form) and twins Anthony (Sam Marks) and Thomas (Alex Waldmann).

Anthony, a late arrival, bursts into view with a casual California swagger that Marks makes immediately appealing: Megan is drawn to this ladies’ man, too, as we soon discover. Thomas, in turn, is a highly emotional artist with an ex-marine boyfriend (Jake Fairbrother) who is besieged by father issues of his own and who finds quiet time during the gathering to make a proposal to Thomas that doesn’t land as planned. Tears flow with alacrity from several characters, with only the prospect of ice cream from Sedutto’s down the road – an emporium name-checked not once but twice – to offer culinary succour.

The central locale, common to this sort of drama from The Glass Menagerie through to The Humans and well beyond, is a dining table, but Roxana Silbert’s exceedingly shrewd production uses the full height of Clachan’s set: a series of cramped-seeming rooms whose distressed wallpaper provides a visual clue that all is not well.

Richard is being given a major award for his pioneering work in IVF, and so the play is informed throughout by the irony of a man lauded for success in the science of birthing children whose own offspring are all damaged in varying ways. “There’s sickness all over this house,” notes Dot rather redundantly, her sweet-seeming husband Nate (Bo Poraj) a science teacher with a career past as gnarled as the Japanese knotweed that is rather portentously invoked as a symbol from the natural world.

We really don’t need Thomas’s allusion to “Shakespearean levels of power play” to clock the affinities to the Lear that Lindsay, on this evidence, surely must at some point perform. And the inclusion of a younger Dot, who appears to her aggrieved father at moments of mental decline, adds little to a stew that doesn’t require further thickening, especially from stage spectres.

Still, for much of the first two of its nearly three hours, I was absorbed in the cross-currents among a vivid array of people who come to singular life, so much so that I found myself wondering whether Zegerman – herself an actress, and a very good one – might not intend her play as a sort of extended pilot for the Netflix series still to be written that takes everyone’s story on. (Her recent appearance in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt will have given Zegerman experience of an inter-generational drama from the inside.)

Between this and Anything Goes last summer, Lindsay seems to be reaching a career plateau not seen since those heady days when he stormed Broadway in Me and My Girl, playing to audiences that, with luck, were calmer than the Myers clan on view here.

We get snatches of Chopin and a quote from Churchill, but it’s hard to imagine these people staying quiet long enough to sit amongst an audience given that The Fever Syndrome is about their individual fight to be heard. Listen lively and with a willingness to do some mental pruning of your own, and for its first two-thirds you’ll have a rattlingly good time.

The Fever Syndrome is at the Hampstead Theatre to 30 April. Book The Fever Syndrome tickets on London Theatre.

*Photo credit: The cast of The Fever Syndrome (Photo by Ellie Kurttz)

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