E.A. POE: THE FEVER CALLED LIVING, Empire Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Once more poor Poe dies in the gutter. Contradictory but never complex, David Scott Hay’s new play about Edgar Allan Poe delivers the usual frightfest: the poet’s demon drinking, temperamental outbursts against editors and writers (invariably inferior in his mind to himself), womanizing, and unconsummated marriage to his cousin and child bride, Virginia. When tortured Poe spoke of the “imp of the perverse”–the quality that makes us harm ourselves simply because we can–he also described the self-destructive “fever called living.”

It’s not only the inner life that’s missing from this play. Poe’s work is irrelevant. So are the facts. (Poe and Dickens have a drunken barroom brawl here. And the ghost of Longfellow offers Poe bad advice that’s the more remarkable since Longfellow outlived Poe by 33 years.) This Poe exists merely to struggle: a self-pitying literary malcontent, he’s mired in job hunts when he’s not taking bribes to puff or pan, insulting his fellow writers, seducing desperate heiresses, or supposedly dying of rabies contracted from a pet cat.

In a role that shouts its subtext, Jason G. Wilson not only resembles Poe but gives the poet’s struggles a sense of authenticity. Wilson’s demented dreamer may remain a gasbag, but there’s something glorious about the overkill. Overall Robbie Hayes’s staging offers engaging storytelling perfectly framed by John S. Beckman’s set, a cabinet of curiosities a la Joseph Cornell. Cathleen Bentley is cloying as Poe’s muselike Virginia, but Franette Liebow brings her usual precision to the thankless role of Muddy, Poe’s mother-in-law and manipulatrix.

–Lawrence Bommer