Don't Dream It's Over

Psychos is as Gothically improbable and florid with blood as a Tarantino film

Denis Johnson's fourth play, Psychos Never Dream, opens with a promising scene beside a grave. A man named Critter shovels dirt and hauls the wrapped body of his neighbor, Ken Hubbard, into a hole. His other neighbor, Floyd, surprises him with a flashlight.

"What are you doing in my yard, Critter?"

The first man excuses his lapse in neighborliness by speculating that Floyd has buried his own wife and seven kids on the same property: The place is already like a graveyard. (This excuse doesn't quite wash with Floyd.) Later, Hubbard's farm will soak in the blood of horses and a herd of sheep. Psychos is as Gothically improbable and florid with blood as a Tarantino film. The brooding first scene promises a half-serious, half-comic meditation on death and maybe psychosis that never quite develops – Psychos lacks the coherence and power of Johnson's last play, Soul of a Whore – but it's outrageous enough to please his fans (me included) and gets a sinister world premiere from director Darrell Larson and his cast.

Cully Fredricksen and John Diehl.
Jeff Fohl
Cully Fredricksen and John Diehl.

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Through Feb. 16

Tickets are $9-15

626-3311

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Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th streets), S.F.

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People know Johnson for his fiction about ex-hippies and drifters (Jesus' Son, Already Dead) and his grim poetry from the 1970s and '80s. He's written a trilogy of plays for Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts, starting with a Shepard-esque mystery called Hellhound on My Trail and culminating in Soul last year. Psychos deals with a (mostly) new cast of characters. It looks at a dissolved commune of hippies in northern Idaho, where Johnson happens to live. Close readers of his stuff may notice that a cop named Navarro from Already Dead now seems to work in Idaho, offstage, as sheriff.

The female cop in Psychos is an employee of Navarro who once lived in the commune and called herself "Tree." Now she goes by Sheriff's Deputy Sarah Doobie, or "Deputy Doobie," a name that causes some amusement when she interrogates Critter about the death of Hubbard. Doobie and Critter knew each other in the commune. Doobie lives in town with a uniform and a girlfriend – adapted, socialized – while Critter still lives in the backwoods and looks wrong in the suit he's purchased special for the interrogation. He might be crazy from a mercury-poisoning incident "back in the time." Doobie asks if bad dreams haunt him at night, and Critter says, "I don't dream. Six hours a night I sleep in the depths of deepest blackness. I think it was the mercury."

Two other characters also appear psychotic: Floyd, the coldblooded Vietnam vet who may or may not have killed his family; and Red, Hubbard's crazy wife, who descends into full lunacy after the livestock slaughter on her farm. But Red manages to recite a dream, so maybe she's not such a psycho. And Floyd, if nothing else, dreams of a fortune in gold. In fact, the failed hippie commune consisted of a bunch of dreamers, and even Critter, in Act 1, remembers a dream he once had. So who's the psycho? Is Johnson's title a statement or a question? The play is wonderfully ambiguous, but it feels truncated; Johnson teases his ideas without bringing them to the surface.

Thematic problems don't keep the actors from turning in strong performances, however. Cully Fredricksen is a chilling, evenhanded, basso-voiced Floyd. Catherine Castellanos as Doobie finds a nice balance between private neurosis (babbling to her girlfriend) and professional calm, trying to draw a confession from Critter. Alexis Lezin discovers a whole new dimension of her personality as Red, especially in Act 2. Red starts as an addlebrained farm wife who fucks Floyd "like a monkey on drugs" (Floyd's words) even before she knows her husband is dead, but in the second act she becomes a rusty-voiced madwoman, unwilling to comprehend the destruction of her happy home. In another actor's hands Red might be one-dimensional, but Lezin gives her humor and personality; she makes Red not just likable but heartbreaking.

Only John Diehl, as Critter, seems uncertain in his role. He looks the part, with bugged eyes and a wild beard, but on opening night he wasn't in command of his lines; his comic timing faltered in the opening scene.

James Faerron has built an ideal split-level set, with crisp town scenes on top and disordered farm scenes below. Jim Cave's lights are just as evocative, from the darkness at Hubbard's grave to the sunlight streaming through Deputy Doobie's Venetian blinds. And Drew Yerys has collected at least half a dozen versions of Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately" for the soundtrack (more than I knew existed).

The production is full and generous; it's the story that ends too soon. But then, Hellhound seemed incomplete four years ago, when Johnson started writing plays, and it turned into a trilogy. Nothing wrong with an encore.

 
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