Mark St. Germain’s absorbing, intellectually stimulating play about an imagined yet entirely possible meeting between the controversial and legendary psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud and the rising literary voice and religious philosopher/professor C.S. Lewis should not be missed. Under the direction of Tyler Marchant, the play is fortunate to have two superb actors bringing these formidable characters to life.
Martin Rayner is splendid as the resolutely irreligious Freud whose worsening health finds him considering suicide. Mark H. Dold is equally on target as C. S. Lewis, the irrefutably smug yet impassionedly committed convert to Catholicism, famed as the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The audience at the performance I saw seemed as engrossed as I at the clever way that Marchant has presided over this wittily and compassionately dramatized clash of personalities and ideologies.
Even if one goes to this play with a preconceived notion about which or whose side you are on, St. Germain presents the conditions and issues of their disputation on a very level playing field. As characterized, we could argue that Freud at 83 years old, seriously ill and ill-tempered, is the more enviably mature practitioner of his convictions, and that Lewis, a former atheist and a war veteran, has somehow embraced religiosity less from an epiphany than as a form of familial rebellion. But even these observations become less fixed and more abstracted during the ensuing discourse.
While crediting “The Question of God” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. as his jumping off point, St. Germain offers an honest consideration of these commendably argumentative two men through their point-counterpoint debating. There are glimmers that even they are also unwittingly drawn to concede, although not in so many words, that the existence of God cannot and probably never will be validated either by a metaphysical supposition or by a scientific hypothesis. The result of this is that everybody leaves believing exactly what they believed at the start, or not.
The play is set in Freud’s London apartment where he now resides with his wife, Martha, and daughter, Anna. It is 1939 and the Freuds have narrowly escaped Hitler’s invasion and the occupation of Austria. Anna has caringly furnished his study to effectively duplicate the one he had in Vienna. This, of course, is the fine work of set designer Brian Prather who creates the carefully detailed environment that includes not only the obligatory desk and chairs, but also a great wall of books, a day-bed that may serve both doctor and patient and some oriental rugs. Not to be overlooked is Freud’s collection of mythological figures and artifacts that curiously become a point for discussion.
Freud is critically ill with cancer of the upper jaw. He listens apprehensively to the BBC broadcasts that bring increasingly dire reports of Hitler’s movements and of England’s inevitable response. The latest updates on the radio, a terrifying air raid during which they struggle to put on their gas masks, as well as a couple of telephone calls during Lewis’s visit provide the only digressions from their talking. For a talky play there is nothing static about the dialogue or the behavior of these two highly opinionated characters. It is certainly amusing to listen to the challenges they make, each inflexible, each armed with his own arsenal of questions and answers.
That there is no loss of momentum during the play’s 75 minutes in real time is a laudable accomplishment. The play’s most unexpected turn has Lewis suddenly having to help Freud cope with a life-threatening emergency. Intractably analytical and yet amusingly conversational, “Freud’s Last Session,” nevertheless, offers more than brainy talk; it offers bracing theater. ***
“Freud’s Last Session,” open ended run, Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, 10 West 64th Street (at Central Park West). $65. 866-811-4111. A limited number of $20 student rush tickets (with valid ID) are available at the box office beginning three hours prior to each performance.