Erik Lochtefeld and Adam Dannheiser  in Safe in Hell
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Erik Lochtefeld and Adam Dannheiser
in Safe in Hell
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Amy Freed gets a kick from scrutinizing the historic past. In the critically lauded The Beard of Avon, she peered at Elizabethan England through the funny end of a telescope to send up bumpkin William Shakespeare as well as Edward de Vere, one of the sophisticated aristocrats suggested to have written Shakespeare's canon. For Safe in Hell, now receiving its East Coast premiere at Yale Rep, Freed trains her time-warp vision on New England about 100 years after the Bard was or (wasn't) quilling the classics associated with him. The kibbutzing playwriting hones in on fire-and-brimstone Puritanism as hysterical young girls point at presumed witches and crusading Cotton Mather, the local man of God, laps up every accusation and revels in the hangings he sanctimoniously sanctions.

Yes, Arthur Miller covered much of this same agitated territory in The Crucible, a fact of which Freed is well aware; she takes that fist-shaking drama and puts her own comic spin on it. The upshot is a piece that kids Miller (Freed even includes a foul-mouthed slave called Tituba) while also adopting the great playwright's attitude that what transpired in "hoar antiquity," as Nathaniel Hawthorne terms the era, is a potent metaphor for what's happening in America this very minute.

Specifically, Safe in Hell tells the mock tale of dorky Mather (Erik Lochtefeld in a lank black wig) and his stentorian father, Increase (Graeme Malcolm in a meringue-white wig and flowing green cape) during the days when witches prowled newly settled Massachusetts. Called from Boston to preside over Salem exorcisms on practically a daily basis, Increase is dubious about Cotton's self-proclaimed speaking-terms relationship with the Lord; the elder Mather isn't inclined to divide his exhaustive labors with his eager boy. Frustrated, Cotton goes to the Devil for help via a supposed forbidden book that falls from his father's upper shelf and almost literally hits him on the head. A few orgiastic exorcisms later, the newly confident Cotton is bullying people from the pulpit far more vehemently than his pater ever could. "Born again...again," Cotton has said about Increase's frequent head-pats from God, and now Cotton himself experiences born-again jolts.

As the play progresses, any resemblance that Freed suggests between the elder and younger Mather and our own George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush is not only purely intentional but is boldly underlined. Unaware that Cotton has been abiding by the devil's formula, Increase delivers a speech to his ambitious son that goes, "But there is another sort of conduit, lightning rods for other forces far more destructive. In the olden days, we called them witches or warlocks, but now we sometimes call them Your Majesty, Your Honor, General, Your Holiness, Mr. President. You understand me?"

There's no way not to understand him; Freed's political commentary is so thinly disguised that there's barely any disguise at all. (Nonetheless, Emily Rebholz's white-collared jackets and women's tight bonnets do an admirable job of establishing the period.) The author's determination is both her strength and weakness. The anger throbbing beneath comical scenes is welcome when the Mathers wrangle with one another and when the family Doakes (Adam Dannheisser, Welker White, Sofia Gomez, and Alexis McGuinness) grapples with its home-grown religious fervor. (At least, liberals will welcome it!) The down-to-earth vulgarity of Tituba, played by the wonderful Myra Lucretia Taylor, packs a punch -- especially as compared to Arthur Miller's Tituba. A few additional segments involving whipped-to-a-frenzy locals and some stuffed-doll supernumeraries also tickle the ribs.

Still, Freed has only a tentative grasp on her satire. In an ardent desire to lambaste Dubya, she hasn't noticed that her dramaturgical slips are showing. Some of the play's interludes simply aren't solid yet, particularly the one wherein Cotton visits Abigail and Little Mary Doakes in their attic to find out just what's possessing them. His sexualized discovery is a bit of a shambles. The character George Doakes, who ministers to Salem residents with a benevolent outlook, hasn't been integrated into the plot. Neither has Indian Roger, a white man who's adopted native ways -- right down to speaking pidgin English.

There's no telling how much of the bursting manuscript director Mark Wing-Davey has been able to trim or fine-tune, and he can't be entirely blamed for Leiko Fuseya's black set, which has an inefficient panel that pulls back and forth to reveal various tableaux. Regardless, he's done a smashing job with the actors. Lochtefeld's initially cotton-mouthed Cotton is a magnetic performance. Malcolm is just as riveting, and he sure knows how to work the cape that costumer that Rebholz has given him. The screaming White is a scream, and the sequence in which she tries to dissuade Dannheisser's likeable Reverend Doakes from temporarily leaving her and their daughters is a hoot. "You could get us all driven out into the wilderness," she bleats to great effect. "Of course, we're all in the wilderness. But deeper, deeper into the wilderness." As it stands, Freed is lost in her own wilderness with Safe in Hell. When she hacks some of it away, she'll find her way safely home.