×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Safe in Hell

Possession takes many forms in Amy Freed's sometimes clever, sometimes obvious look at the Salem Witch Trials in "Safe in Hell." After its bow last year at South Coast Rep, the show is receiving a spirited East Coast preem at Yale Rep, helmed by Mark Wing-Davey. Vaudeville, puppetry and grotesque masks all contribute to the dark farce that looks at the consequences of extremism in pursuit of God, Devil or Dad.

With:
Cotton Mather - Erik Lochtefeld Increase Mather - Graeme Malcolm Rev. Doakes - Adam Dannheisser Mrs. Doakes, Mr. Smurt - Welker White Indian Roger - Sean Dougherty Maggie Smurt - Katie Barrett Abigail - Sofia Gomez Little Mary - Alexis McGuinness Tituba - Myra Lucretia Taylor Townsman, Judge, Mrs. Smurt - Jeff Steitzer Young man of Salem - Chad Callaghan

Possession takes many forms in Amy Freed’s sometimes clever, sometimes obvious look at the Salem Witch Trials in “Safe in Hell.” After its bow last year at South Coast Rep, the show is receiving a spirited East Coast preem at Yale Rep, helmed by Mark Wing-Davey. Vaudeville, puppetry and grotesque masks all contribute to the dark farce that looks at the consequences of extremism in pursuit of God, Devil or Dad.

But Freed has more on her mind than a Puritan version of “Spamalot.” Problem is, when it comes time to get semi-serious in the second act, the playwright loses her bearings as she tries to make sense of the political, social and psychic dynamics of that time — and of the present.

Like Arthur Miller with “The Crucible,” Freed sees contemporary resonance in her subject matter. For Miller, it was the political witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. For Freed, it’s the current administration’s strategy of using religious principles for political ends. One doesn’t have to squint too hard to see the Bushes in Freed’s Oedipal storyline of the esteemed father and the hopelessly lost son, the latter using a campaign of fear and paranoia to earn his place in the family portrait gallery.

Play centers on the Rev. Increase Mather (Graeme Malcolm), the formidable but God-loving Puritan preacher, and his arrested-development son, Cotton (Erik Lochtefeld). The reverend’s sermons have such titles as “Why God Hates You.”

Increase is summoned to quell the hubbub in Salem, but illness prevents him from traveling, so Cotton seizes the day to show the old man he doesn’t lack the “family gift for the invisible.”

Freed uses contempo speech, some anachronistic touches and lots of broad comedy to make her points — and sometimes just for the hell of it. Often the touches are deft or screwy (“But seriously, folks,” says Increase in the midst of his hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.) Sometimes, however, the gags are simply clunky or strained. (“Let’s not jump the musket, my good woman,” Cotton says to one of the townsfolk. Or: “That’s why he’s called the Almighty. He just might.”)

A great, white-maned Malcolm plays the imposing elder Mather with delicious delight, playfully embracing his Puritan passion. But underneath the silliness, there’s a man who is seriously conversant with God and who understands the need for light in the hard lives of the New World colonizers. (Leiko Fuseya’s dour black set is so grim, it’s funny, with even the textured walls looking painful to live with.)

Also understanding the balance between the farcical and the real is Adam Dannheisser as the Rev. Doakes, the touchy-feely preacher who is the liberal antidote to the party-pooper Puritans and who becomes a victim of Cotton’s crusade.

Perhaps because both Increase and Doakes genuinely connect with God in their own way, they can play the comic so divinely. Less successful is Lochtefeld’s Cotton, who plays the sweaty, smirky, skittish scion with a sense of lost dimness. But the character indeed loses his way and focus in the second act, when he makes a deal with the devil he knows rather than the God he doesn’t.

Others in the cast are wonderfully loopy. Welker White is hysterical in every sense of the word as the tightly wound Puritan wife who just can’t take it anymore in the “dung-hole” of Salem. When her husband tells her times may get more difficult and they might have to live a little poorer, White’s answer, “Not — possible!” — is the comic cry of a woman at wit’s end.

Also solid are Myra Lucretia Taylor as the African slave Tituba, who gives new flavoring and meaning to pea soup, and the other actresses, all of whom take comic possession of their roles.

But for all the comic goings on, it’s unclear what Freed has in mind other than to revel in the tragedy of idiots. Is it to make a morality tale of the battle between the forces of light and darkness, or to say a little more filial self-esteem could have averted a national disgrace?

When the play ends with its light-filled spectacular as Doakes climbs the stairway to Paradise (accompanied by Hawaiian music), Cotton still can’t utter the words “I’m sorry.” In the search of God and/or the father, sometimes it’s easier to settle for the devil in disguise.

Safe in Hell

Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, Conn.; 480 seats; $50 top

Production: A Yale Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Amy Freed. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey. Choreography, Peter Pucci.

Creative: Sets, Leiko Fuseya; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Gina Scherr; sound, David Budries; special effects, Aleksandra Maslik; production stage manager, Glenn J. Sturgis. Opened, reviewed Nov. 17, 2005. Runs though Dec. 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast: Cotton Mather - Erik Lochtefeld Increase Mather - Graeme Malcolm Rev. Doakes - Adam Dannheisser Mrs. Doakes, Mr. Smurt - Welker White Indian Roger - Sean Dougherty Maggie Smurt - Katie Barrett Abigail - Sofia Gomez Little Mary - Alexis McGuinness Tituba - Myra Lucretia Taylor Townsman, Judge, Mrs. Smurt - Jeff Steitzer Young man of Salem - Chad Callaghan

More Legit

  • Hugh Jackman'To Kill a Mockingbird' Broadway

    'To Kill a Mockingbird's' Starry Opening: Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and More

    The Shubert Theatre in New York City last was filled on Thursday night with Oscar winners, media titans, and, of course, Broadway legends who came out for the opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The starry guest list included Oprah Winfrey, Barry Diller, “Les Misérables” co-stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Gayle King, [...]

  • Pat Gelbart Obit Dead

    Actress Pat Gelbart, Wife of 'MASH' Creator, Dies at 94

    Pat Gelbart, widow of late “MASH” creator Larry Gelbart, died surrounded by family at her home in Westwood, Calif. on Dec. 11. She was 94. Gelbart was born in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1928 as Marriam Patricia Murphy. When she met her husband, Gelbart was an actress, known for the 1947 musical “Good News,” in which [...]

  • To Kill a Mockingbird review

    Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

    Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage-worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The ever-likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, [...]

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth to Appear on Stage in 'The Mother'

    Isabelle Huppert will appear opposite Chris Noth in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Mother.” It marks the U.S. premiere of the show. “The Mother” was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Huppert, an icon of European film, was Oscar-nominated for “Elle” and appears in the upcoming Focus Features [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Sunday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

  • Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary,

    Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary, 'Hugo Cabret' Musical

    Producers Tim Headington and Theresa Steele Page have unveiled Ley Line Entertainment with a Brian Wilson documentary and a “Hugo Cabret” musical in the works. Ley Line said it’s a content development, production, and financing company with projects spanning film, television, stage, and music. Headington financed and produced “The Young Victoria,” “Argo,” “Hugo,” and “World [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content