Is there anybody easier to make fun of than sexually repressed religious zealots? Of course not, so a moral-minded farce about one of the most intolerant of them all—Cotton Mather, who among other things was the great apologist for the Salem Witch Trials—risks the dangers of obviousness and of the same kind of moral intolerance it's trying to expose in Mr. Mather. Safe In Hell, Amy Freed's newest play, now getting its world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory, flirts with both dangers, and despite a cheery, rousing production, a goodly supply of reliably hilarious moments, a mostly smart and entertaining text, and at least one outstanding performance among several fine ones, it finally succumbs on both counts.
Nominated in 1998 for a Pulitzer for Freedomland (which also premiered at South Coast Rep) and the author of a number of other well-regarded, award-winning plays, Freed is ambitious and skilled, and she can infuse her characters' speeches with an energetic lyricism that is its own reward. (To hear the Puritan divine Increase Mather, Cotton's father—played by Broadway veteran Greame Malcolm with the superb intelligence and eye-twinkling joy in performance you might find in Ian McKellen—thundering away in the pulpit, white hair flying, is so much fun it deserves some kind of enshrinement.) Freed has researched Puritan history and theology enough so that she can credibly dramatize some of the major differences between, say, the first, second and third generations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers, and she has the real pro's gift for knowing how to spice the serious 17th-century theology stuff with a drop-dead contemporary joke and still sustain the mood. (Sent to investigate when the daughters of a local family start acting possessed, Cotton comes upon the writhing young women, who exclaim, "Hell is a fellowship of sinners and a whole lot of fun!") She's written at least half a dozen meaty roles future actors will hector their agents to get, and the production moves swiftly, slickly and confidently. Still, it turns out to be a thesis play, and the thesis, all the fun notwithstanding, is that Cotton Mather was the devil, and he became the devil because he was really pissed-off at his dad. The play's dramatic structure is held together with a rickety Freudianism that used to pass as illuminating in the 1950s (Robert Sherwood plays, Hitchcock films), but using it now comes across as an excuse not to do your homework. Increase Mather's son Cotton was none-too-pleasant a personage, granted. He was vain, he was pretentious, he did try to climb the clerical hierarchy by defending to the end the stupidities and horrors of the witch trials, even after—perhaps, yes, because—his father had decried the whole thing. But he wasn't the quivering cowering fool we first meet near play's beginning, who's so callow in experience, so sexually shut down, so eager to prove his worth to his father that he might as well be wearing boys' britches. It's hard to remember that the younger Mather—played at first too hard for laughs by Robert Sella before solemning up the part by play's end—was in reality a man lusty enough to sire 15 children (13 of whom died before he did) with three wives (two of whom died on him, while the third went mad) and who wrote more than 400 works, some of them absolutely vital to the historical record and none of which is even suggested in the play. (Freed, instead, tells us one of Cotton's sermons was titled "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Hell!") Neither was Increase Mather quite as tolerant and cozy a character as he's made out to be. Freed, in other words, simplifies the father-son relationship like crazy, suggesting that Cotton's jealous torment over never having felt like he'd had a proper conversion experience—his born-again moment—turned him against his pious father and curdled into a rage against the world and an ultimate identification with evil itself. Now, this would probably be okay if Freed let the play resonate simply as historical farce. But Safe In Hell has big things on its mind. The play is about the dangerous hypocrisies of empowered religious zealots; it's about the relationship between sexual repression and religious fundamentalism; and it's about a subtly suggested parallel concerning what happens when the fundamentalist son of a powerful father decides it's his turn at the helm ( la the Bushes pere et fils). Watching it can make you feel smugly superior to the folks down the road at Calvary Chapel, and it can make you wonder if maybe there's nothing wrong with this country that a good exorcism on the president couldn't cure. But if that's what you go to the theater for, good luck.
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Safe in Hell at South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through May 9. $27-$55.