PHOBIA, WNEP Theater Foundation. "When a madman appears thoroughly sane, indeed, it is high time to put him in a straitjacket." This line from a classic Poe tale, whose climax is the revelation that the inmates are running the asylum, is the best description I can give of WNEP's ambiguous, tricky new piece, directed by Jen Ellison. I won't reveal any of the surprises, but this is a work that's as much about how it disintegrates as how it takes shape. With a little more falling apart, it could really come together.
Purportedly a combination symposium/self-help lecture on conquering irrational fears, Phobia immediately goes wrong when scheduled speaker and author Dr. Philip Sydney doesn't show. His assistant, Dr. Tod Charles, takes over, demonstrating the IPIP method with incomprehensible visual aids and a handful of queer test subjects. As technical mishaps and evidence of the method's basic viciousness mount, the doctor's authority over the audience and his patients waxes and wanes, finally collapsing into disaster.
While the coy presentation and supporting cast are effective, this is essentially a one-man show. Dr. Charles is a masterful creation, a deft blend of condescension, obliviousness, and unhealthy therapeutic enthusiasm whose accent nicely joins academic and scientific dialects. But his veneer of obtuse smarty-pants cool in the face of chaos--a considered and hilarious choice--never shows enough cracks until the very end, muting the rising hysteria. If the uncredited actor here could come more obviously undone while allegedly maintaining control, Phobia would be truly frightening.