Monday, February 28, 2011

"Freud's Last Session" Questions and more questions - Brilliantly played

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Kevin Sprague

Does God exist? Such a question has confounded man since at least the time he was capable of rational thought, and such is the question playwright Mark St. Germain takes on in his brilliantly involving and provocative play Freud's Last Session at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, making it one of the surprise hits of the season.

Set in the outskirts of London in Hampstead on September 3, 1939 when war is all but assuredly on the way, Oxford professor and author C.S. Lewis (Mark H. Dold) is summoned to the home of renowned physiatrist Sigmund Freud (Martin Rayner). Lewis expects to be called to task for satirizing Freud in his latest book. However Freud has a completely different reason for the meeting, wanting to know why Lewis, a formerly devout atheist, as Freud is, has suddenly embraced the existence of God.

The answer, Lewis says, is quite simple: at the beginning of a trip he took he did not believe, and by the end of the journey he did. Of course it is not that simple at all, as during the course of the play, Lewis lays out the step-by-step process he went through which led him to this leap of faith. It's an explanation countered at every turn by Freud, who offers questions and arguments to the contrary showing why, in his view, God simply cannot exist.

One of the reasons the play is so interesting is that the playwright, to his credit, doesn't really try to take sides regarding who is in the right; instead offering examples and possibilities in this age-old argument of logic versus faith. This argument also begins to show an insight into both men, which is explored through their conversations as they debate the issue.

Freud was forced to flee his native Vienna when the Nazis came to power, though not before having a close encounter with them. He is also now suffering terribly from oral cancer, the pain of which will soon cause him to end his life. As for the younger Lewis, he is carrying his own scars from his combat experience in the First World War; "the war to end all wars," he notes bitterly. Both men have a strong sense of dignity, yet at the same time both carry secrets they want kept hidden. Freud is tremendously dependent on his daughter, the only one he trusts to take care of him, while Lewis has a relationship with the mother of his best friend who was killed in World War One. As Freud observes, one can learn more not from what someone says, but what they chose not to say.

These insights into their personal histories, as well as continuing interruptions from the outside world (in the form of a ringing telephone, a radio announcement and an air raid warning) are constant yet realistic reminders of what's going on around them as they continue their debate each trying to make their points with fervent belief, sardonic comments and occasional humor and insight (such as Lewis remarking on the figurines on Freud's desk, or Freud explaining about an insurance salesman).

Tyler Marchant's direction is perfectly handled here, showing Freud and Lewis as wary opponents and possible colleagues, both seekers of truth in their own way. Rayner is wonderful as the aged and ailing, but still mentally clear Freud, giving no quarter in the discussion, yet with enough vulnerability to allow the audience to see behind his professional demeanor. It's a testament to the actor's work that he is able to rise above the stereotypical and much parodied version of Freud to make him instead seem quite compelling and real. It's an added bonus that the character is imbued with just enough of a sense of humor that he doesn't take himself too seriously at times.

Dold is very good as Lewis, combining earnestness coupled with experience, as well as fear of drying in the war that is to come. It is a fear that Freud, who has resigned himself to the fact that he will die one day soon, no longer has. Lewis also carries with him a quiet calmness when he talks about his faith, an interesting change from the stereotypical fire and brimstone believer - also a frequent subject of parody (Lewis even hates hymns!).

Brian Prather's set of Freud's study is very nice, with its large glass windows and shelves filled with files, books and other brick-a-brac one would expect to find in a psychiatrist's office. Mark Mariani's costumes work well, sound design by Beth Lake is excellent and the lighting by Clifton Taylor is good.

As someone once said, it's not about finding the prize at the end of the quest, but rather it's the journey that's important; and Freud's Last Session has quite the interesting journey indeed. Good work by all involved and very highly recommended.

Freud's Last Session
By Mark St. Germain
Suggested by "The Question of God" by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.
Directed by Tyler Merchant
Set Design: Brian Prather
Costume Design: Mark Mariani
Lighting Design: Clifton Taylor
Sound Design: Beth Lake
Production Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Featuring: Mark H. Dold (C.S. Lewis), Martin Rayner (Sigmund Freud)

The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater
West Side YMCA
10 West 64th Street (between Central Park West and Broadway)

Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission

Open Run

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