Freud’s Last Session
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through March 4
George Bernard Shaw once observed that it is useless to argue with a clergyman because his livelihood depends on his not changing his mind. But the remark could equally well be applied to anyone whose career depends on defending and maintaining a particular point of view —and that could be said of both the protagonists in Mark St. Germain’s play. Sigmund Freud (Martin Rayner) built much of his world fame and notoriety on his debunking of organized religion, and maintaining that the Bible is mere mythology. And the younger writer, C.S. Lewis (Martyn Stanbridge), had, after years as an agnostic, embraced Christianity and become its apologist and promoter — its propagandist, if you will.
The time is 1939. Sigmund Freud has fled from Nazi-dominated Vienna to England. He is world-renowned, but he is also growing old and set in his ways. And he is suffering from cancer of the mouth, which has required surgery to remove much of his upper jaw and replace it with a painful prosthesis.
England has been tottering on the brink of war for months, and now it has tumbled into the abyss. London is mobilizing, providing its citizens with gas masks and evacuating children and prisoners to the countryside for safety. Freud has summoned Lewis to a meeting, but the war-driven disruptions in transportation have made him very late for his appointment — and Freud, a stickler for punctuality, is not ready to forgive his tardiness.
Lewis thinks the summons has been caused by Freud’s disapproval of his latest book, but Freud claims he has not read it. Apparently, he has been driven to confront his energetic antagonist on general principles. So even before they begin, the fat is in the fire. Soon they are engaged in a verbal battle on the question of whether God exists. One might assume that this is a dramatically threadbare argument, since it has been raging for centuries and there’s nothing new to be said. But in this case, character and circumstance are all. Both parties are eloquent and clever, with plenty of mother wit; moreover, their argument is repeatedly interrupted by events in the real world: a speech by the Prime Minister, and an air-raid warning siren that prompts both to contemplate the possibility of imminent death and pull out their gas-masks, till the warning is revealed to be a false alarm. (Think the recent events in Hawaii.)
Despite the interruptions, and Freud’s increasing pain from his prosthesis, the argument grows hotter and more personal, till both men are going for the jugular, and attempting to undermine the other’s beliefs and statements. Finally, both are shouting till a more immediate concern — Freud’s crippling pain — puts an end to their debate. Nothing has been settled of course, but we have been treated to a piercing and sometimes funny examination of the issues, as well as revelations of the characters of both men and a terrific display of fine British character acting.
Director Robert Mandel has done his work so well that we are scarcely aware of it: the events on view seem to be arising organically from the men and their situation. Rayner’s Freud captures the essence of what we know of the man — irascible, opinionated, and fierce in his defense of his beliefs. At first tentative and apologetic in his respect for the older man, Stanbridge’s Lewis soon proves that he can give as good as he gets. And the two actors work together seamlessly, like musicians performing the late Beethoven quartets. The events of the play may be fictitious, but here they are given a convincing and rich reality.
Set designer Pete Hickok gives us a faithful rendering of Freud’s consulting room (which was designed by his daughter Anna to be a replica of the one he had in Vienna) with all its Mitteleuropa gemutlichkeit and the ancient artifacts from his collection. The other technical credits are similarly excellent.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles. Thurs., 8 p.m., Feb. 8 & Mar. 4; Fri.-Sat.. 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. (310) 477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com. Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.