Psychoanalysis does not profess the arrogance of religion, thank God. Sigmund Freud in the Play
Attention thinking theater-goers! If you haven’t caught up with Freud’s Last Session, the return of its original cast should goose you into action. This is a really smart, intriguing play, not for a moment dull or pedantic. Imagining a London meeting of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and the then largely unknown author, C.S. Lewis, playwright Mark St. Germain offers not only a battle of intellect and belief, but well drawn historical context, high drama, comic relief, and insights into both singular characters. The two men spar with increasing respect for one another in a particularly credible and appealing fashion.
September 1939. The invasion of Poland by Germany is announced by radio in the book and statue filled study of Freud’s recently acquired Hampstead house. Despite the fact his works were among those the Nazis burned, the doctor had been resistant to leaving Vienna. He’s 83 years old and in the last stages of particularly painful cancer. Still, Freud’s mind remains sharp and sufficiently curious to invite to his home C.S. Lewis, a young Oxford academic who was, before conversion at 32, a particularly vocal atheist, brought to Christianity, he wrote, like a prodigal “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for escape.”
Now fully formed, Lewis’s ideas could not be more different from that of the doctor. Freud feels God is an illusion based on our need for powerful parenting, one no longer required now that it’s not used to restrain man’s violent nature. He is, he thinks, a realist: “Why should I take Christ’s word he was God any more than I believe any one of my patients who calls himself Christ.” The hypothetic discourse takes place before both Lewis’s masterful Chronicles of Narnia and his more important writings on Christianity. He’s 41.
A masterful piece of research and dramatization, Mark St. Germain’s script brings his protagonists to life peppering the stage with nuanced moments of acknowledgment and recognition. Radio broadcasts, air raid sirens and telephone calls are adroitly used to punctuate and place. The play is not only interesting, it’s unexpectedly moving and contains one of the best unresolved but neatly finished solutions I’ve witnessed.
Martin Rayner (Sigmund Freud) has created his character from the outside in. The viscerally painful gargling voice he employs, chest coughs, shortness of breath, staccato (Germanic) gestures of emphasis, and moments of humor affected with a decided twinkle, meld to present a defined portrait. Rayner’s watchfulness is never empty. Thoughts are constructed before they’re expressed. Balance of gravitas and fallibility is beautifully achieved.
Mark H. Dold (C.S. Lewis) – From his pressed flannels to the graceful ease with which he moves, Dold’s Lewis presents a picture of robust health and hope (faith?) in direct contrast to Freud’s illness and fatalism. The actor’s furtive skirting of Freud’s couch couldn’t be more genuine, his admiration for collected artifacts manages to appear reservedly tinged with envy, recollection of Lewis’s war time experience conjures tortured visual images, concern for his host is deft and touching.
Director Tyler Marchant has both orchestrated and choreographed what may seem a battle but is, in essence, a lively dance. Transitions from the depth of emotion to literal laughter are seamless. When one man lobs a thought the other finds worthy, there are pristine seconds where both players show awareness. An unanticipated physical intimacy is skillfully handled to make the most of its awkwardness without becoming melodramatic. Pacing is terrific.
Brian Prather’s Set, richly detailed and character specific, features Central Asian textiles, Egyptian amphoras, Greek and Indian statues, a wall of well bound journals, and a desk which opposite one another presents one Chinese and one Bank of England chair as if to show both sides of the coin. The well crafted window never shows a sign of daylight to which the men repeatedly refer, however. Mark Mariani’s Costumes evocatively describe the characters who inhabit them, offering the contrast of dark and light, classical and modern, patrician and practical, well worn and fresh pressed. Beth Lake’s Sound Design delivers sturdy contribution.
Photo credit Carol Rosegg
Sigmund Freud- Martin Rayner, C.S. Lewis- Mark H. Dold
Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Tyler Marchant
Featuring Mark H. Dold & Martin Rayner
New World Stages
340 West 50 Street