The Psychic Life of Savages

Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Sts., through June 7, 546-STAGE

There are two premises you have to accept to enjoy Amy Freed's play, The Psychic Life of Savages, now at the Wilma Theater.

One premise is that poets of the 1950s and '60s - such as the four central characters, Sylvia Fluellen (Rita Pietropinto), Ted Magus (T. Ryder Smith), Anne Bittenhand (Laura Esterman) and Robert Stoner (Will Marchetti) - are acutely psychotic, abusive, egocentric, suicidal, destructive and self-destructive jerks. Given the real poets on whom these characters are loosely - only loosely - based (Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell), this premise isn't all that difficult to accept.

The other premise is that poets talk poetry almost all the time, that images spring to their minds and roll off the tongues spontaneously, and that all a poet needs to do (or not do, in the case of Stoner, who is suffering from a decade-long case of writer's block) is to write it all down. These poets not only recite their own, and one another's, poems from memory; they seem to invent poems as they go along, while they speak in everyday life. When the poets insult one another, when Robert wrestles Ted to the ground and twists Ted's arm until it breaks, when Ted rapes his wife Sylvia amid the spinach and mashed potatoes on the kitchen table, they do it all in free verse.

This second premise is, of course, preposterous. But it frees the playwright to write virtually all of the dialogue of her play in the clotted and gnarled diction of modern poetry that brilliantly parodies her various models. And it liberates her to depict the mundane world of college classrooms, birthday parties, bedrooms and kitchens as a world supercharged with attitude, and with words and words and words.

We first meet Ted and Robert in the first scene of the play as they meet one another on a radio program, where we learn that they are both crassly egotistical macho creeps crippled by sexual performance anxiety. We first meet Sylvia and Anne in the second scene of the play as they meet one another in a hospital psycho ward after their respective suicide attempts. And that turns out to be all we need to know about any of them. Ted lures vulnerable women into his self-serving chthonic rituals. Robert rails and accuses and abuses. Anne exploits her long-suffering husband and daughter before running off with Robert to serve as his "undermyth.'' And Sylvia dwindles into a wife, engages in imaginary dialogues with the equally psychotic ghost of Emily Dickinson (Sally Mercer) and struggles with writer's block, until she finds her voice and scores a Sylvia Plath-like triumph with a feminist bestseller.

It's all far enough away from the real Plath, Hughes, Sexton and Lowell that we can accept, counter-factually, that all four hung out together at the edge of a woods in New England, that Anne was "Daddy Bob's" lover, etc. But it's all close enough to the real-life models that we just know that it will end with Anne and Sylvia finally succeeding in committing suicide. Indeed, everyone ends up just as we expected they would, which is pretty much where they began: the men are Pyrrhically triumphant, and the women, with the men's complicity, finally succeed in doing away with themselves (Anne, swan-like, dying in song). Ted, like Orpheus, is virtually torn apart by maenad-like feminists; and Robert acknowledges that "the girls are in the ground," but, unlike Orpheus, decides to let them be.

As we are first getting to know the characters and their neuroses, Freed's play is great fun: fizzy, disturbing, verbally brilliant, neurotically madcap, delightfully repellent. The comedy sparkles; the poetry, and the characters' facility with it, astonish us. Blanka Zizka's staging (aided by Russell H. Champa's lightning-flash lighting of Anne C. Patterson's set, textured like a cantaloupe-rind) is breathtaking. And all of the actors have just the right amount of appeal to make us like their loathsome and pathetic characters: Smith gets Ted's sexy smarminess, Esterman Anne's blindsiding egocentricity, Marchetti (who repeats the role he originated in the play's premier production in Washington) Robert's medication-soggy late-life despair, and Pietropinto Sylvia's alternating panic and rage.

But once the characters settle in with one another and start fucking each other over, literally and figuratively, it all gets more grim, and the play has nowhere to go except to wait for the women to meet their psychotic destinies. And all that poetry starts to doom the play as much as it dooms the characters: the characters' poetry no longer expresses their lives, but imprisons them in a world of words that are as nasty and as self-serving as their attitudes.

Finally, the most sympathetic character of all becomes Sylvia, not because of what we know about the real-life Plath having become a feminist martyr, but because she's the only one of the four who, for a time, stops talking poetry. "I know all about hell," she tells Ted, once she has stopped writing and spends all of her time in the kitchen cooking soufflés. "Then fucking write about it!" he screams back.

The play's biggest tragedy is not how people express their psychotic angst through poetry, but when they find they cannot, when the characters' and the play's own verbal eloquence fails. Once they get their poetic voices back we no longer trust it, and the play never recovers.

-Cary M. Mazer