What exactly is Amy Freed’s “The Psychic Life of Savages”? Parody, spoof, send-up, black comedy? Surely it is not meant to be a serious attempt to illuminate the fine line between poetic genius and madness, as “loosely” inspired by the lives of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell (throw in the shrill ghost of Emily Dickinson for good, or bad, measure). This Yale Rep production, the first directed by the company’s new artistic director, James Bundy, suggests “Saturday Night Live” or “The Carol Burnett Show” on a bad night.
A number of people have found Freed’s play noteworthy. In 1995 it won a Joseph Kesselring Award from the New York Arts Club. It also won a Charles McArthur Award, and an earlier version’ received an award from San Francisco’s Bay Area Critics’ Circle and was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
But in Bundy’s broad, noisy and shrill production, it seems dated, self-indulgent and off-putting in its arch cleverness. Bundy’s actors — who have all given skillful performances in other circumstances — bully and posture their way through the evening, screaming when they’re not shouting. A reading of the script suggests that it’s partly to blame, but surely a production with even a modicum of subtlety and sensitivity would serve it far better.
Much of the play takes place in and around Massachusetts, where four of the five poets it depicts were born (Hughes was, of course, English). Its many settings, from college radio station to mental hospital to classroom to lighthouse, are swiftly evoked on the Rep’s wide stage by designer Young Ju Baik’s series of sliding walls and curtains.
The play opens with Ted (John Hines) and Dr. Robert (Will Marchetti) being interviewed on the radio by an oily academic (Bill Kux). Ted is wildly histrionic and physical, Dr. Robert grumpy. Within minutes we’ve been treated to a lot of highfalutin’ verbiage in the form of poetry by Freed written along the lines of each of the poets that inspired her.
Shortly after this we meet Anne (Meg Gibson) in a mental hospital and see Sylvia (Fiona Gallagher) receiving shock treatment, during which she’s visited by Emily’s ghost (Phyllis Somerville). These confessional poets wore their emotions like scars on their poetry, so Freed’s characters, who are never fully dimensional in this production, continually flay themselves and one another. At one point Ted asks Sylvia: “Are you really crazy or are you just pretending?”
The play’s incessant, self-satisfied emotional wallowing grows harder and harder to take, made all the worse by the direction and acting. As a member of the audience was heard to say: “This is an insult to Plath, Hughes, Sexton and Lowell.” Add Dickinson to the list. However you look at “The Psychic Lives of Savages,” it can’t help but smack of dramatic opportunism at the expense of a group of remarkable poets.