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Freud's Last Session In London on the day when Germany invades Poland in 1939, superstar father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, an unrepentant atheist, invites the brilliant young university professor C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian, to his home for a chat. In Mark St. Germain's bumpy yet intriguing two-character conversation, Freud's Last Session, feisty, hard-edged Freud (James Black) engages upright, morally unshakable Lewis (Jay Sullivan) in an 80-minute round of intellectual tennis. Their exegeses on Jesus, man's suffering, a bit of sex talk and lots of daddy issues ends up in a tie, while the drama takes a snooze. The debates are smart as the guys serve and volley with professional precision, batting back and forth such capital-letter subjects as emotion vs. intellect, faith vs. the scientific method, even fathers vs. sons. They are both expert at the game. "An insidious lie" is what Freud calls religion; "There is a God," counters Lewis. Curmudgeon Freud, dying from jaw cancer, usually gets the best lines, but Lewis parries with the finesse of youth and the implacable rightness in his Christian faith. Just as the game gets heated, it's invariably cut short by phone calls from the outside world to remind old Sigmund to turn on the radio to hear the latest bad news, or by the screech of air-raid sirens that sends both men scrambling for gas masks. The specter of death is close, adding a poignant, human touch to Freud's stoney pronouncements and Lewis's prim priggishness. The pain and grisly details of his cancerous disease soften Freud, as do Lewis's still-fresh memories of the horrors of trench warfare during WW I. While trying to present both sides without judgment, St. Germain drains the life out of the play, not that there aren't moments of levity during the dry debates about free will, moral conscience and obsessional neuroses. Both men get their share of audience sympathy. Although he appears as rumpled as his black suit, Black makes shuffling old Freud a still-smoldering volcano, bellowing smoke and fire when appropriate. The explosions sap him, leaving him more pained and therefore more resolute for his suicide to be. He's still a mighty lion and knows his place in history, but his body is broken, even if his ego is secure. As a young C.S. Lewis, before he became internationally famous as an unrepentant Christian from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, Sullivan is as clean and bright as Freud is sooty. He's had his revelatory road-to-Damascus moment, and his conversion makes him shine. He radiates goodness and morality, with a whiff of insufferable rightness. If you're going to war with unbelievers, he could lead the troops into battle with unconquerable cheer. His jousts with Black sparkle. Directed with unmatched fluidity by Tyler Marchant, Freud moves swiftly. No one stays in one place very long, not even on that famous couch. Designed by Brian Prather, Freud's examining room is a hothouse beauty, draped in oriental rugs and cozy as a dream, with every nook holding leather-bound tomes or a phalanx of ancient statuary, guardian angels and totems that spur the mind. The set is the most well-appointed arena in town. Although Freud's Last Session resembles SparkNotes more than Tom Stoppard, St. Germain's game of advocates and adversaries is literate and adult and hinges on the mysteries of life. There's plenty to think about. We're grateful for that. Extended through March 2. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

Sexy Laundry The great staple of comedy is the midlife marital crisis, and Canadian playwright Michele Riml has added to the genre with a two-character play about a wife seeking to rejuvenate sexuality by booking a room in an upscale hotel tor her husband and herself — and bringing along a "how-to" book. Alice is elegant, slender and highly articulate, and Henry is sincere and agreeable, though so unenthused about the "rejuvenation" project that it's hard to imagine why he agreed to it. The very good news is that the actors playing them both have warmth and charm, and can turn what might be bickering in other hands into comfortably light banter. Susan Koozin plays Alice and is wonderful as a controlling woman, still quite beautiful, though with doubts about her looks. Josh Morrison plays Henry as a less complicated human being, a husband and father of three whose idea of a good time is to watch the news after work. They are celebrating 25 years of marriage. The play begins as a romantic comedy, but about halfway through its 85-minute journey, more serious matters emerge, and it appears that reality might intrude, and then it veers into farce as Alice engages in behavior that is comical though out of character with her dignity. The set by Kristina Miller is very attractive, and lighting design by Bryan Ealey, an important part, is excellent. The direction by Kenn McLaughlin is impeccable, and he has evoked the charm from the actors that makes this endeavor worthwhile. I would hate to see this comedy with less-gifted actors, but with Koozin and Morrison, it pays off handsomely as they find the humor and rich comedy in a midlife marital crisis and carry us along with them on a most pleasant theatrical journey. Through March 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

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