Freud’s Last Session

By Mark St. Germain
Directed by Tyler Marchant
Starring Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner
Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, 10 West 64th b/w Broadway & CPW
production web site:
open-ended run

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 2, 2010

Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud and Mark H. Dold as C.S. Lewis

The convention of setting up the bare minimum theatrical frame for philosophical / theological debate as an evening in the theatre is familiar, often abused,  infrequently successful.  Among the painful experiences in this vein for me in recent years I include (based on a work by our theological convert C.S. Lewis in the present play, it so happens) The Screwtape Letters — a minion of the Devil and his squeaking assistant muse over the fates of souls in some kind of bizarre purgatory.  A more successful adventure for me of recent vintage is The Savannah Disputation in its world premiere production at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois [see the Time Out Chicago review here:]  In that play by Evan Smith two elderly sisters, Savannah, Georgia, a Christian missionary, and a priest combine humor and theology and theatricality to great effect.  For such plays we in the audience hope to experience an adventure that acknowledges the framework, presents characters that animate the stage, and engages us in the points of discussion (philosophy, theology, whatever) that inspire the playwright.  Will the whole adventure feel like a ruse for doctrinaire diatribes or will it be a theatrically informed evening of conversation, developed character arcs, surprises small and large, no need for an ultimate debate winner but the sense of a distance covered, a journey enjoyed?

The sweet Little Theater at the Y on 64th Street is a great intimate setting for an after dinner speech.  A Rotarian’s travelogue.  A visiting lecturer’s slide presentation of their recent excavations in Equatorial Africa.  And such a presentation (barely theatricalized) is what we are given in Freud’s Last Session.  Quiet and competent performances by Martin Rayner as 83-year-old Sigmund Freud and Mark H. Dold as 33-year-old C.S. Lewis in an imagined 90 minute conversation between the two men in Freud’s London study on September 3, 1939.

Here the men discuss theology in between phone calls from Freud’s daughter Anna and waiting for radio announcements of Nazi political maneuvers and Chamberlain declaring war, punctuated by the drone of airplanes overhead, and dramatic evidence (complete with stage blood bags) of Freud’s cancer eating away at the bone structure of  his face. We do not have the energy and emotional passion and tautness of the first act of Lisbon Traviata (about which I wrote several months ago related to the April 2010 Kennedy Center presentation — my mind and my emotions still reel at the memory).  Here  dramatic structure relies upon our dying intellectual giant and famous atheist engaged with a self-satisfied young man being energized by events outside their ideas rather than within them.  Death from disease and a world newly at war give us the stakes on stage.  Neither this script nor the staging of it (stolid direction by Tyler Marchant, realistic set design by Brian Prather, evocative light design by Clifton Taylor, functional sound design by Beth Lake) take us anywhere.  Phone call interruptions, radio bulletins, air raids, sores suddenly bleeding  … external events provide the “stakes” but otherwise this very verbal piece of theatre left me quite cold.

On the play’s side, some quotable lines deserve mention (and a quick perusal of other reviews will generate rafts of additions).  First, some lines uttered by our stage Freud.  “Things are simple only when we choose not to examine them.” “My father’s greatest influence was in showing me how not to be.” “Why should I take Christ’s claim to be the son of God any  more seriously than my patients who claim to be Christ?”  From Lewis [on his adolescent attempts at atheism, reacting to his grandfather minister and repressed father] we are offered:  “Atheism satisfied my desire to be left alone.”

Intriguing that the youthful Lewis toward the end of the play zeros in on the fact that Freud seems to turn off the radio dispatches after announcements are made, when the programming returns to music.  Every time this occurs (and this occurs throughout the play, until the play’s final minutes).  Lewis proclaims to Freud about his distaste for music, which Lewis understands to be a resistance to emotion: “You object to being moved.”  To this Freud retorts: “I object to being manipulated.”  In this case, I quite agree.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 3, 2010)

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