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A CurtainUp Review
Freudís Last Session
CurtainUp has covered very well the setup and trajectory of Freudís Last Session in its premiere production by Barrington Stage (review ) and Off-Broadway (review). So Iíll comment on specific areas, but wonít go into the whole story here.
Playwright Mark St. Germainís idea to posit this fictional encounter in a quiet study on the very day Chamberlain declared war on Germany, and King George VI delivered The Kingís Speech is a stunning one. Dramatic background developments provide a sense of the time and also opportunities to show contradictions within the characters that might not otherwise have been exposed.
This Arden production is excellent in every particular — the play choice itself, the design teamís work, the acting, and the direction. My one issue with the playwright is that these two celebrated, rational, mature, and highly intellectual men come off at times sophomoric as they carry on a young personís argument. It may be that St. Germain is orienting the audience, keeping things uncomplicated, and not taking general philosophical sophistication for granted.
The solid and well designed set, beautifully lighted by James Leitner, is handsomely turned out by David P. Gordon, replete with books and fine artifacts that recall Freudís apartment as exhibited in Londonís Freud Museum. Jorge Cousineauís realistic sound design adds punch, running the gamut from a barking dog to a real Sovereign King on a vintage radio, to the roar of a plane flying over, air raid sirens, and music.
The actorsí relationship to the space is dead right. Todd Scofield as C.S. Lewis preserves a newness to the room as he experiences Freudís study, while David Howey as Freud clearly owns the space. In very appropriate costumes by Katherine Fritz, they embody their characters with total comfort and speak in accents that are remarkable in that they donít stand out as theatrical. Scofield, who hails from DC, does a very creditable educated English accent. Howey, whoís from England, achieves the sound of an expat Jew speaking English with an Austrian-tinged German accent. Incidentally, speaking of talking, in this imagined conversation Freud talks an awful lot for a man with a palatal prosthesis for a painful advanced stage of mouth cancer.
Not because of its specific subject matter, but because itís a two-hander about public people with differing points of view, Freudís Last Session recalls several other shows. A random smattering of these would be Frost/Nixon (Peter Morgan í06), Schoenberg (John Fisher, FringeNYC í08), and Chomsky vs Buckley,1969 (Bruce Walshís little Philly Fringe í12 gem). Throw in the 1981 movie, My Dinner With Andre. (Remember Christopher Guestís My Dinner With Andre action figures?) All of these compelling works remarkably avoid the stasis of talking heads, as does this play.
Ian Merrill Peakes in his directorial debut directs extraordinarily well. Maybe because he is an actor, Peakes elicits utterly believable small actions as he intuitively plots out subtle position shifts from the charactersí perspectives. His attention to timing and detail pay off as the two men reposition in ways that are as suitable and unobtrusive as they are continuous. And at moments when movement becomes climactic, it flows coherently from the situation.
The playwright credits his idea to explore belief issues to Dr. Armand Nicholiís book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. I find that Nicholi, who favors impartiality, tends to respect Freud yet lean toward belief. After the show I collected a very small sample of impressions from viewers on the God issue in St. Germaineís play. The results were as follows: One third thinks it lists toward the believer, C.S. Lewis; another third insists the play favors Freud; and a final third feels that it is even-handed. It looks like the playwright has achieved a balance.
Itís easy to see why Freudís Last Session is so popular. Itís completely absorbing, it transpires in a wonderful space, and it offers the opportunity to spend quality if imaginary time with two of the great minds of the last century.
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