Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner in Freud's Last Session. Photo by Kevin Sprague.
BOTTOM LINE: It's Reason vs. Faith in this handsome production of an intelligent and thought-provoking new play.
There's a lot to admire about Mark St. Germain's new play Freud's Last Session. It's that rare phenomenon, a thoughtful and intelligent play of ideas, powered by a Shavian passion for debate. The playwright has obviously done meticulous homework, imagining a meeting (which may or may not have actually occurred) between two intellectual giants of the 20th century: Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis.
The year is 1939. The 83-year old Freud, famous as the founder of psychoanalysis, has fled Nazi-occupied Vienna for London. Lewis is an Oxford don, who at 41 is on the cusp of his successful career as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and numerous seminal literary works on Christianity. As the program states, "The clash between these two men is timeless."
Clash may be too strong a word for the civilized discourse of the play, but the situation is certainly rich with dramatic and intellectual possibility. Freud was an existentialist who vehemently disparaged religion and was called "the atheist's touchstone for the 20th century." Lewis is regarded as the most influential Christian apologist of his time and was known as "The Apostle to the Skeptics." Who better to argue that most basic issue of human existence: Faith vs. Reason?
And argue they do — cleverly, articulately, humorously, and fiercely. St. Germain's dialogue is both lucid and subtle, and the actors infuse their characters with equal parts zeal and finesse. The play is also smart enough not to take sides; each man scores significant points off the other. Both are compelling and sympathetic, allowing audience members to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately the men are forced into an unexpected emotional intimacy that brings their intellectual dispute into sharp human focus.
Director Tyler Marchant has orchestrated a physical production that is in every way superb. The costume, lighting and sound designs are authentic and evocative of the period. The set is an impeccably detailed rendering of Freud's study, nestled cozily into the burnished wooden proscenium arch of the charming Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater.
Ironically, the characters' refreshing civility may be what keeps the play from "catching fire" dramatically. Or perhaps I'm just inured to the acrimonious ranting that passes for public debate these days. Neither Freud nor Lewis would last a second on Fox News, or for that matter in today's partisan Congress. And though they engage each other on the morality of suicide and the death penalty, the world of 1939 seems innocent, almost quaint, in contrast with our own. What would these brilliant men make of abortion, same-sex marriage, the Middle East and other seemingly intractable moral issues of the 21st century? Of course St. Germain can't answer such anachronistic questions. Perhaps it's enough that he makes us ask them of ourselves.
(Freud's Last Session now plays at New World Stages, 240 West 50th Street. Performances are Mondays at 8PM; Wednesday at 2:30PM and 8PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM; Saturday at 2PM and 8PM; and Sunday at 3PM. Tickets are $65; call (866) 811-4111 or visit ovationtix.com. $20 student tickets are available at the box office 3 hours before the show. For more information visit freudslastsession.com.)