Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"Freud’s Last Session"
Marjorie Deane Little Theater, West Side Y, Manhattan
It is a battle of the Titans—the man of science versus the man of God, the non-believer versus the believer, the Jew against the Catholic—two great minds at odds with each other.
This imagined encounter transpires between Sigmund Freud and the noted British writer C. S. Lewis. Whether these two men, each famous in his own field, ever met, is uncertain. It is known that a young Oxford professor did meet Freud during his final days. This fact sparked the interest of playwright Mark St. Germain, resulting in “Freud’s Last Session.” Such an exchange may have been apocryphal, but the playwright uses the premise to create his play. It is a brilliant exchange of opposing views on God, Man, and the Universe.
The two-man play was highly praised at its Barrington Stage Company’s premiere in the Berkshires. And now the production has been brought to New York, playing through September at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, West Side Y. Performances of Martin Rayner as Freud and Mark H. Dold as Lewis are impeccable, each taking command of his role.
The encounter takes place at Freud’s home in Hampstead, London, where he has emigrated to escape the Nazi terror. It is 1939, and Germans have just invaded Poland. War, for England, is imminent. At the same time, the 83-year-old Freud is dying of oral cancer, while the 41 year-old Lewis is moving toward the height of his writing/teaching career. (Later he would write his masterpiece “The Chronicles of Narnia” and other works on Christianity which would sell millions of copies.)
This literate, probing piece is an examination of ideas, rather than a played-out drama. Nothing much moves ahead in the 75 minutes that actors Rayner and Dold are on stage. One is reminded of the film, “My Dinner With Andre,” wherein playwright Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory lock horns in similar fashion.
But no matter. Despite the plotless format, the characters come across as eminently human, thanks to the combined efforts of writer and actors. While the irascible, outspoken Freud makes shocking statements, which he views as truth, Lewis, despite his British reserve, sends the ball whizzing back across the tennis net. Freud tears down Lewis’s idea of God as a fairy tale, but Lewis comes back strong.
The ideas themselves have a jolting effect. At one point, for instance, Lewis comments, “…I understand you’ve made some inflammatory claims…that Moses wasn’t a Jew, but an Egyptian? That God never chose the ‘Chosen People,’ but Moses did? And that after he led the Jews to the Promised Land they killed him for it….” “Not for that,” Freud replies. “For either his imperious dogma or his insistence that all men be circumcised…My conjecture is that murdering Moses forced the Israelites to bury their guilt under the camouflage of religiosity, even to this day.”
“No wonder your book’s selling so well,” says Lewis. “Jews must be standing in line to tear it to pieces.”
“And me,” Freud admits. “But Jews must wait their turn behind my greatest enemy, the Catholic Church.” Such is the jolting effect of the Freud-Lewis exchanges. Presumably the Freudian views are accurate, as St. Germain appears to have carefully researched his Freud.
Whether this meeting is fact or fiction, it makes for a provocative, challenging evening of ideas. One listens with fascination to two sides ofa highly-charged debate. The material is so dense, so worthy of reflection, that one would be well advised to see the show twice.
July 24, 2010