Fever Syndrome has lofty ambitions. It wants to exist in the same space as the great family dramas of Sam Shepard but feels more apiece with the middlebrow family dramas of Sunday evening on the BBC.
It is neither a great play nor a terrible one, comfortably carrying its 2 hour 40 minute running time without ever threatening to be the break-out hit I suspect those involved thought it might become.
It follows the Myers clan, a family of New York intellectuals who orbit around fiery patriarch Richard. A trailblazer in the field of IVF, he now suffers from Parkinson’s; his three children return to their old brownstone to watch him collect a reward that will act as the final punctuation mark in an illustrious career.
Largely estranged, siblings Dot, Thomas and Anthony soon fall into familiar patterns: Dot’s the overbearing one, Thomas the peace-maker, Anthony the charmer.
Had the title not already been taken, this play may have been called The Inheritance. Playwright Alexis Zegerman explores the various permutations of the concept: the genetic inheritance that led to Richard’s Parkinson’s and his grandchild’s titular fever syndrome; the disputed financial inheritance of the brownstone, which threatens to rupture the family; the psychological inheritance of a lifetime’s worth of poor parenting.
Richard has the air of Succession’s Logan Roy, an ageing tyrant who’s still able to turn on the charm when the situation requires. He’s well played by Robert Lindsay, full of frustrated anger that could be the Parkinson’s or could be his curmudgeonly nature, although his presence does invite unhelpful comparisons with his sitcom My Family.
Elsewhere the siblings are all watchable enough, their bickering and frequent cross-talk giving the play a propulsive quality, despite each one straining against being written as a familial archetype.
None of this is helped by the fact the cast are mostly Englishmen playing Americans, with accents wobbling throughout. It doesn’t feel like transporting the drama into an Islington tenement would have created insurmountable scripting issues.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Fever Syndrome is its set, a dolls’ house writ large that forms a cross section of the creaking old home. It offers a voyeuristic window into the characters’ lives even when they aren’t the focus of attention, although the device is never utilised quite as effectively as you’d hope.
If Fever Syndrome feels disappointing, it’s because there’s potential for more than we end up with. It takes too few risks, the family members never straying far from type, and the ending offering a redemption that feels unearned.