"I'M HARBORING THESE little epigrams," moans bitter, aging poet Dr. Robert Stoner (Will Marchetti) halfway through Amy Freed's The Psychic Life of Savages. "Oh, how I hate my enthusiasms... afterward." Like Stoner's lament, Freed's view of art and language, now at the Empty Space, succeeds in that rare accomplishment of illustrating the collision of brazen comedy with rich suffering.

The play is a layered free-for-all that throws several thinly disguised American poets at each other in the late 1950s; there's a dazzling sense of personalities whose artistry both sustains and destroys them. Suicidal Sylvia Fluellen (a Plath-like debutante played by Betsey Schwartz) is initially the Daniel in a lion's den, which consists of pretentious guru and future husband Ted Magus (played with wonderfully horny bombast by Eric Ray Anderson); pill-popping harridan Anne Bittenhand (a boozy, scabrous turn by Lori Larsen, whose riotous take combines Elaine Stritch with Maggie the Cat); and the aforementioned Stoner (for whom Marchetti amusingly creates a melancholy pomposity). The comic high Freed achieves through the preening narcissism of these people is (not coincidentally) the route by which she also arrives at the artists' deeply buried torment. Sylvia's budding literary pretensions soon blossom from this torment and are meant to anchor the play, but Betsy Schwartz's performance can't quite accommodate these pretensions. She has verve, but unlike her fellow actors, the language is never a part of her.

This is partially the fault of Director Leslie Swackhamer, who forces the issue a bit and doesn't really create the vaguely Durang-ish organic wildness for which the play longs. It feels too choreographed; you can see the footprints of its comic routines. It's much funnier -- and quite moving, outside of its group scenes -- when Swackhammer can have just two of her actors together and set them nibbling away at each other in cutting interplays of lust, desperation, and professional competition. Though there is goofy, ingenious support in multiple roles from Susanna Wilson, Beth Andrisevic, and especially Ian Bell, this production works best when it hooks into Freed's rhythm and captures the minute agonies that lurk beneath every hysterically ridiculous linguistic ecstasy.

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