'The Fever' at New York's Public Theater

If you’re the sort of person who hates being dragged on to the dancefloor or forced to play charades, then you should probably give The Fever a wide berth. For this is interactive theatre for enthusiastic joiners, which leaves solipsistic stick-in-the-muds with little place to hide.

In the very first moments we are coaxed into performing a kind of Mexican wave. Two of the performers, all uncredited and frequently indistinguishable from the audience, then describe a bland yet convivial house party. The titular fever, it becomes clear, is the warm fuzzy glow we feel in the company of trusted friends.

And soon the whole theatre starts to come down with a serious case of good vibes as performers and audience members collaborate in confidence-building activities familiar from motivational seminars and corporate retreats. Catch me before I hit the ground! Now adjust my arm! And help me get back up again! Let’s try a gentle bit of crowd-surfing! Such routines could easily seem risible yet somehow an aura of genial serenity and mutual consideration prevails. At times, we could even be attending a quasi-religious ceremony.

The Fever, which is being staged by the 600 Highwaymen theatre company as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, nonetheless feels like an exercise in enforced bonhomie (even if the audience seemed genuinely game on the afternoon I attended). In theory, you could of course choose to sit out the whole thing, but it’s clearly more comfortable to go with the flow. And the performers have all mastered an affectless, schoolmistressy style of delivery that suggests they would be extremely disappointed if you didn’t give it your all.

The piece thus raises intriguing questions about how far a skilful troupe of actors could push a compliant audience. Yet the rather misnamed Highwaymen avoid taking any real risks. No one is going to object to being asked to do nice things to each other. What’s missing in The Fever is a bit of vinegar to set off all that sweetness. True drama needs conflict so it’s too bad the happy fever never breaks here.

To January 15, publictheater.org

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