Suspense, done well, captures the attention so there’s no time to notice plot holes or preposterous coincidences. Only when the story ends do you realize that you’ve been bamboozled; Lee Child’s best-selling Jack Reacher series, for example, brilliantly distracts readers from realizing the novels totally rely on absurd happenstance.
Unfortunately, Matt Williams’s slack psychological thriller, “Fear,” offers plenty of opportunities not just to ponder inconsistencies and contrived plot twists, but also to sneak glances at your watch.
The problems start almost as soon as the play does.
Phil (Enrico Colantoni of “Veronica Mars”), a grizzled middle-aged man, enters a large abandoned shed — Andrew Boyce’s oversize set is lavishly detailed, if an abandoned shed can be said to be lavish — dragging in a teenage boy. This looks pretty ominous for the captive, Jamie (Alexander Garfin), whom Phil subjects to hostile questioning and then ties to a chair.
A local 8-year-old girl has gone missing and Phil, unmoved by his prisoner’s rosy cheeks, angelic curls and general air of offended surprise, is convinced that Jamie is involved.
Some serious grilling is about to begin when Ethan (Obi Abili) walks into the unsettling scene, horrified. Too bad he has no cell reception and can’t contact the police who are said to be swarming the area, searching for the girl.
Phil, on the other hand, clearly has a much better carrier: At regular intervals he interrupts the proceedings to take calls from his own children. (That’s what you do in the middle of threatening to waterboard a 15-year-old boy.) And he, of course, steps outside for those innocuous phone conversations, leaving Ethan alone with Jamie.
Ethan is a tenured professor at Princeton, so you might assume he has half a brain, yet he is unable to untie Jamie from his chair, or even to look for a tool to cut the cord. No wonder he buys the kid’s far-fetched excuses.
Then again, maybe they are not tales and it’s Phil who is off his rocker. Or both Phil and Jamie are unreliable narrators, trying to put one over on Ethan.
Good plays have emerged from less appetizing premises — Tracy Letts’s virtuoso noirs “Bug” and “Killer Joe” come to mind — but Williams, a creator of “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement,” generates unintentional snickers rather than chills. At least the show is a marginal improvement on his last effort, the cringe-worthy rom-com “Actually, We’re ____.”
Staged in a lumbering manner by Tea Alagic — the tension is so thin, you could cut it with dental floss — “Fear” sports one good idea: It’s unclear whether Jamie is as diabolical as Phil says or whether he’s just a misunderstood loner from the wrong side of the tracks.
That he could very well be both is the story’s most interesting aspect, especially since Garfin is quite convincing as a hard-to-parse teenager trying to talk his way into escape.
But the adult characters are so roughly drawn as to be laughable, and even the class antagonism — Phil, a plumber, resents Ethan’s status as an academic — comes across as a feeble attempt to connect to the larger cultural and political moment.
At least the sound design, by Jane Shaw, is ominously effective.
Through Dec. 8 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, feartheplay.com. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.