Update: Performances of Freud's Last Session have been extended through March 2.
The set-up: 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. (The reason why is obliquely hinted at as the play progresses.) In Mark St. Germain's bumpy yet intriguing two-character conversation, Freud's Last Session, feisty, hard-edged Freud (James Black) engages upright, morally unshakeable Lewis (Jay Sullivan) in an 80-minute round of intellectual tennis.
The execution: 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, if not smart-alecky, as the guys serve and volley with professional precision, batting back and forth such capital letter subjects as emotion vs. intellect, faith vs. scientific method, even fathers vs. sons. They are both expert proponents 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.
Both Lewis and Freud end up on the couch, but like all the scenes, just as the therapy 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 grim news, or by the screech of air raid sirens which sends both men scrambling for gas masks.
The specter of death is close indeed, adding a poignant, human touch to Freud's stoney pronouncements and Lewis' 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. And both make cogent points that we can agree with.
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, each one 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. The battle with Lewis has deepened him, though. At the end, he succumbs to the music on the radio. For once he doesn't turn it off, but sits at his desk and listens for the first time, losing himself in the emotion of the moment.
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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. Once a committed atheist with much in common with Freud, he's had his revelatory road-to-Damascus moment, and his conversion makes him shine. He radiates goodness and morality in his beliefs, with a whiff of insufferable rightness. If you're going to war with unbelievers, he could lead the troops into battle. He has his demons, too, but fights them with unconquerable cheer. His jousts with Black sparkle.
Director Tyler Marchant directed the play's 2009 world premiere at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and its subsequent two-year run off-Broadway, so he knows his way around, over, and through St. Germain's text. Freud is fluid, no one stays in one place very long, not even on that famous couch. Set designer Brian Prather's faithful reconstruction of Freud's London house is a hot house beauty, with that divan draped in oriental rugs and cozy as a dream. Every nook holds 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.
The verdict: Although Freud's Last Session resembles SparkNotes more than Tom Stoppard, St. Germain's game of advocates and adversaries is swift, literate, adult, and hinges on the mysteries of life. There's plenty to think about. We're grateful for that.
Freud's Last Session runs through
February 23 March 2 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $65-$75.