Playwright Amy Freed deserves credit for sheer audaciousness in her decision to write a comedy about the Salem Witch Trials. Unfortunately, the end result is little more that an extended Saturday Night Live sketch.
The piece begins well enough, with a haunting sermon by the Puritan preacher Increase Mather (marvelously performed throughout by Graeme Malcolm), who warns New Englanders about their fate as sinners, evoking the image of America as the divine city on the hill that is in danger of crumbling under the weight of evil. Increase's son Cotton (also well played by Robert Sella) is among the sinners who cannot quite live up to his demanding father's expectations.
In the opening scenes, Freed creates a tone both contemporary and timeless, which she largely abandons for most of the play, falling back on cheap jokes and slapstick that wear thin in no time and rob the piece of its impact. We are introduced, for example, to the family of Reverend Doakes (Simon Billig), the owner of the fabled slave from Barbados, Tituba (Tracey A. Leigh), who was tried for witchcraft in Salem. Doakes, who is in the habit of saying "Wow" a lot and convening his congregation in the woods, has a couple of daughters, portrayed here as the Puritan version of Valley Girls, all too eager to play the witchcraft game and point fingers at everyone in town. Other characters in the play include Indian Roger (Hal Landon, Jr.), who is really white but thinks he's an Indian, and a bevy of incredibly stupid village folk.
While the idea of turning the severe Puritan creed on its head and lampooning it with goofy characters sounds cute, the effect is quickly deadening, as the cheap jokes, based on contemporary slang and broad innuendo, fall flatter and flatter. After awhile, one expects to hear a drum roll after each gag and longs for a funnier half-hour on Comedy Central. Although David Emmes does his usual solid directing job, the weak writing quickly sinks the production.
More importantly, Freed's larger points about the hypocrisy of the Puritan ethic and its echoes in contemporary American religious and politics are almost completely lost. While Increase Mather's opening speech soars with religious and political undercurrents that still swirl beneath us in the twenty-first century, the romping of teenage witches and the spouting of modern argot by strait-laced Puritans bears very little subtext.
Arthur Miller's The Crucible sent shock waves through America in the early '50s with a dramatic retelling of the witch trials that was full of subtext and contemporary parallels. This is not too say the subject does not deserve comic treatment. However, Freed's choice to go for lowball comedy and cartoonish characters shortchanges not only the real humor of the era, but also blunts its very modern political and religious reverberations.
"Safe in Hell," presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Apr. 9-May 9. $27-55. (714) 708-5555.