Friday, July 23, 2010

Freud's Last Session

How refreshing to hear a challenging debate between two equal opponents who treat each other with respect and wrap it up in about 75 minutes. Even better when that debate is about the existence of God and put forth during an imagined meeting between C.S. Lewis (Mark H. Dold, left in photo) and Sigmund Freud (Martin Rayner). Mark St. Germain’s new two-character play, Freud's Last Session, which opened last night at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater Little Theater, is a worthy exploration of faith by two great thinkers of the 20th century.

A discussion of religion could really bomb theatrically without the right ingredients. Director Tyler Marchant has been blessed with St. Germain’s excellent script and two first-rate actors. Not to mention Brian Prather’s outstanding set, Freud’s book- and artifact-filled London study, with its dark furniture, Victorian lamps, Oriental rugs and, oh, yes, that infamous therapeutic couch.

We don’t know if such a meeting ever took place between the Christian convert Lewis, then a rising star, and the esteemed atheist psychoanalyst Freud, although Harvard professor Armand M. Nicholi Jr., in his best-selling book The Question of God, mentioned that a young Oxford professor visited Freud at the start of World War II after Freud had settled in London to escape the Nazis. St. Germain’s creative speculation that it could have been Lewis makes for dramatic and witty entertainment.

Set on Sept. 3, 1939, the day England entered the war against Germany, Freud, dying of oral cancer, would have been 83 and Lewis 41. (Freud died of doctor-assisted suicide less than three weeks later.) The two men interrupt their discussions frequently to listen to BBC reports on Hitler’s aggression in Poland, which certainly give credence to Freud’s claim that the notion of a loving God is “an insidious lie.” But Lewis holds his own, and even turns the psychiatric table on Freud. Pointing to the assortment of figurines on the doctor’s desk, Lewis asks, “What do you call a man whose desk is dominated by gods and goddesses?” Freud’s quickly replies, “A collector.”

It is that kind of fast-paced exchange and St. Germain’s balanced theological arguments that keep the play from falling into preachiness or dogmatism. While I agree with Lewis and choose to believe in God, Freud’s points make sense to me. I also find it hard to explain away pain and suffering as something we just don’t understand. Any questioning person wants to know where God is in that.
Freud's Last Session had its world premiere last June at Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company, where it was extended twice and brought back by popular demand for two subsequent encore engagements.  It holds the record as the longest-running play in Barrington Stage’s history.

The Off-Broadway premiere is at the Little Theater, 10 W. 64th St. For tickets, call 212-352-3101. For more information, visit

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