By MIKE DUNHAM
Mark St. Germain's imagined meeting of writer C.S. Lewis and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, "Freud's Last Session," became a surprise hit when it opened off-Broadway. New York critics praised it, Theatermania blogger Andy Propst described it as having "irresistible intensity."
Outside the big apple the reviews were less than glowing.
David Anthony Fox in Philadelphia called it the work of "a hack writer... a stream of platitudes and cute aphorisms." Reviewing the San Jose production for SFGate, Robert Hurwitt said it was a "letdown" after the New York hype.
The script is set on the day Britain officially enters World War II. Freud, an adamant atheist nearing death, wants to probe former atheist Lewis, who has famously become a Church of England adherent. Other than the meeting itself, the historical details are correct and many of the lines are drawn from the writings of the two.
What follows, says Hurwitt, "is a theological-psychological debate that never rises much above the level of late-night bull sessions in college dorms and cafeterias. Some of it is amusingly stated. St. Germain manages to represent each side well and superficially enough so that atheists and theists alike can assume their side won. But the central arguments are shopworn and ultimately boring."
Only shopworn for those who have already encountered them. That's a minority in modern secular America where even those fairly familiar with their own belief system are generally uneducated about the faith - or lack of it - of others and, for the most part, people don't put a whole heck of a lot of thought or research into it.
On initial encounter, however, in a venue and at a time that one has set aside to pay attention to what people on stage are saying, the arguments may seem brand new and stimulating, which may explain the largely positive reaction of audiences here and elsewhere.
But a debate is not theater.
The theatrical part requires a visceral connection between viewers and characters. St. Germain has his two gentlemen talk about themselves, but gives us little to like or dislike. Only a subtle and polished actor can give them a glimmer of life, which may be why noted actors like Judd Hirsch have jumped on the play. (Of course, most of us would pay $25 to see Hirsch sit on stage and clip his nails and find it rewarding.)
The current production at Cyrano's benefits from a cool and precise Kevin T. Bennett, revealing yet restraining Lewis's inner fears and doubts, and Dick Reichmann as an alternately blustering and amused Freud, intellectually roiling as he deals with the pain of terminal cancer. If you must sit through 90 minutes (no intermission) of platitudes and cute aphorisms, these are probably the best two performers in town to pull it off.
Reichmann's own historical play, "Bruckner's Last Finale," recently debuted at Cyrano's. It addressed some of the same questions, but was moving and funny and anything but didactic. One felt concern for his characters but distant to St. Germain's paper dolls clipped from the pages of the books of two important thinkers. "Freud's Last Session" is no "Bruckner's Last Finale."
Much of the play hinges on radio broadcasts. These were not clearly heard. If no better copies of the original audio are available, readers should perhaps replicate the text in a cleaner take.
On the other hand, Brian Saylor's set was both beautiful and faithful to Freud's own study in his London years. Photos of the San Jose set suggest that someone borrowed a law library to fill the bookshelves of the eclectic psychiatrist, a jarring misstep.