Life & Culture

The Fever Syndrome theatre review: 'Feverpitch speed spoils this family’s drama '

Last seen on stage as an actor in Leopoldstadt, Alexis Zegerman takes on the genre of the great American family play



The Fever Syndrome
Hampstead Theatre | ★★★✩✩

There is no doubting the ambition of Alexis Zegerman’s play. Last seen on stage as an actor in Leopoldstadt, and as a writer with Holy Shit in which a Jewish couple make the ultimate sacrifice to get their child into a decent school (they convert to Christianity), Zegerman has this time taken on the genre of the great American family play.

Set in a brownstone on the Upper West Side the Myers are high achievers. From patriarch Richard (Robert Lindsay) a professor of fertility treatment who rails against his country’s rightwing religiously motivated anti-science attitudes, to the three now grown-up children he delivered who each excel in their own field, the Myers set the bar high.

Dorothea (Lisa Dillon) and her twin brothers Thomas (Alex Waldmann) and artists and Anthony (Sam Marks) who runs a cyber currency scheme have all gathered to celebrate Richard’s life time achievement award. But there are ticking time bombs of family discord waiting to explode, not least because Anthny has persuaded his father to invest all his money into his risky enterprise.

They are an intimidating bunch, the Myers. Extended members of the family cling to relevance in the whirlwind of competitive conversation.During these exchanges Dorothea’s obsequious husband Nathaniel (Bo Poraj), a disgraced researcher accused of plagiarism, painfully curries favour from Richard in the hope of relaunching his career. Meanwhile Thomas’s boyfriend Philip is a reminder of what well-adjusted looks like, while Richard’s third wife Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath) suffers from the solitude of being a carer as Richard is diminished by Parkinson’s disease.

In all this Zegerman establishes expansive themes within the confines of the brownstone’s walls. One is the nature of dissatisfaction which is personified by Dillon’s icy Dorothea. She yearns for a child who is healthier than her daughter Lily (Nancy Cooper) who suffers from a dangerous autoimmune disease from which the play gets its title. But for Richard — who is also an expert piano player — dissatisfaction is the motivating force to achieve excellence, no matter what the emotional cost on those closest to him.

Lizzie Clachan’s multi-storied design is as ambitious as the writing. But the detail, such as the torn wallpaper on the walls revealing the passage of time, somewhat distracts as does the ghostly presence of Dorothea as a young girl whom only Richard can see as he is haunted with guilt for the tough rather than tender love with which he raised his children.

Yet while the Myers are great company — especially Lindsay’s irascible patriarch and Dillon’s ruthlessly single minded Dorothea — Roxana Silbert’s well acted production fails to reach the dramatic promise made by the play’s content and the quality of Zegerman’s writing.

The poignant climax feels rushed and slightly ahead of the themes being fully explored. It is not often that one one wants to see more of a play that runs at nearly three hours. But if edits were made to keep the length down it says a lot to suggest that they might be put back in. It is if the production shied away from the ambition of the play — Chekhov on speed you might call it.

Perhaps the hoped for New York version will allow it to fully blossom.

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