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Review: ‘Psychos Never Dream’ by Denis Johnson

by Jerome Weeks 10 Mar 2009 2:47 PM

Author Denis Johnson – chonicler of blue-collar lives gone banal and berserk – gifts us with a hilarious, violent-yokel comedy. It’s too long and a bit ramshackle. But we learn the proper way to hit someone with a shovel.


Early in Denis Johnson’s new comedy-drama, Psychos Never Dream, a violent but shrewd backwoods Idaho character named Floyd (Sean Hennigan) calmly explains a minor point to an even more violent but decidedly dimmer backwoods Idaho character named Critter (Raphael Parry). Floyd maintains that Critter’s reason for clubbing his long-hated neighbor Hubbard to death — Hubbard’s corpse lies at their feet in an open grave — was based more on Critter’s vengeful fantasies than anything akin to reality.

Critter slaps his head. “Oh my God!” he bellows, more upset at himself than, well, that whole needless killing thing. “Is this something else I’ve misconstrued?!”

Yes indeedy. Psychos, a co-production of Kitchen Dog Theater and Project X, is all about misconstruing the distinction between insanity and reality. It’s about the foggy, pernicious influence of the personal and the American past (in this case, the ’60s, road trips, hippie communes and Vietnam) and it’s about property rights, treasure hunting, the link between madness and love and the proper way to hit someone with a shovel.

Breakfast in bed: Tina Parker and Sean Hennigan in Kitchen Dog/Project X’s ‘Psychos Never Dream.’ Photo: Matt Mrozek.

It’s also just about the funniest, most foul-mouthed evening I’ve spent in a North Texas theater recently — featuring, as it does, full-frontal nudity and several attempted murders between old friends. When Critter reappears later, covered in blood, waving a machete and bent on killing every living thing on Hubbard’s ranch, Red — the late Hubbard’s freshly-minted widow — informs him, a little distractedly: “See, this is why you’re never invited here.”

Too bad Psychos seems a little distracted by all the mayhem to figure out what it wants to say about any of this. That’s evident in the play’s ending, which doesn’t come soon enough and which concludes on a scream that doesn’t really conclude much. It’s mostly just a convenient place to stop.

Can’t have everything, I suppose. How does a dramatist coherently present incoherence? And give it meaning?

Denis Johnson is the National Book Award-winning author of the remarkable Tree of Smoke. That epic novel managed hallucinogenically to sum up just about every notable Vietnam war book or film from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now to Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Before that, Johnson was hailed by people like novelist Don DeLillo for his portrayal of the “lonely spaces and stunned lives” in books like Jesus’ Son.

Onstage, as the newest chronicler of the lost souls of the blue-collar American West (by northwest), Johnson has more or less followed Sam Shepard’s model (as in Johnson’s earlier Hellhound on My Trail). Psychos is still loosely Shep-ish, but without the kind of Overarching Metaphor that often (but not always) gives Shepard’s speed-freak dramas some shape. On the other hand, Psychos does have the hilarious, violent-yokel comedy cranked way up — at least under director David Kennedy, who first presented the script as a staged reading at the DTC when he was associate artistic director there. Basically, Psychos plays like My Name is Earl on a drunken killing spree.


Aggressive weed removal: Raphael Parry and Sean Hennigan. Photo: Matt Mrozek.

Floyd first discovers Critter standing next to that open grave. Critter figured he could bury Hubbard’s body on Floyd’s land because he believes Floyd has been doing a little late-night burying himself. So what’s one more body?

But if Critter is a hot-blooded madman, Floyd’s a cold-blooded one (he works as a treasure hunter). The two men more or less join forces in trying to steal Hubbard’s remaining money from Red (Tina Parker). It turns out that quite a few people in this area, like Critter and Red, share some history — they once lived in a commune together (Critter: “We were terrible hippies”). The commune’s failure due to a bout of mercury poisoning is one offhand explanation for Critter’s paranoid dementia and for Red’s even more tenuous connection to this planet.

Director Kennedy has assembled a terrific cast and crew. Kudos to Robert Winn for his ingenious Murphy-bed set and to sound designer Bruce Richardson for all the Frank Zappa tunes. Critter claims he was a Zappa roadie, and the character provides Raphael Parry his best full-tilt berserker role since his Goose and Tomtom heyday with the Undermain. Sean Hennigan is a rare local actor who can be casually credible as the kind of calculating monster who feels affection for Red but will feed her to the wolves for a bit of cash. As the disheveled Red, Tina Parker takes what could have been a cliched role — the poignant madwoman — and layers in quirky bits of comedy and wrenching pathos. It’s a mighty brave performance, open and pained.

Only Lisa Lee Schmidt — returning to the stage after six years  — has a thankless role, playing the straight man to the loons. Her straight man is a lesbian sheriff’s deputy who was once named “Tree” and is trying to determine what happened to the missing Hubbard. (Schmidt is even saddled with the play’s one redundant scene, a one-way pay phone argument with her lover.)

That’s right: Psychos is something of a crime-and-cops drama, although the fuddled police investigation here is on par with the general crazy-white-people-in-the-north-woods milieu. Out on Johnson’s mountainous edge of the American Wilderness, where civilization meets anarchy but we’re not sure which is worse, the only thing that seems to be working are the pay phones.