‘Freud’s Last Session’ both engages and entertains
WATERTOWN — Playwrights have often found fertile ground in suggesting meetings between icons that never actually happened.
There was the successful pairing of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
Then there are plays that evolve from an actual meeting, such as Terry Johnson’s “Hysteria, “
the playwright’s take on a meeting between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali, which was produced at the Central Square Theater in 2011.
The playwright Mark St. Germain also found Freud to be an irresistible temptation, imagining a confrontation between Freud – an atheist, believing God to be a representation of an infantile desire for a strong father figure – and the Christian academic and novelist C.S. Lewis in his play “Freud’s Last Session,” now being produced by the New Repertory Theatre in the Mosesian Theatre of the Arsenal center for the Arts.
St. Germain has crafted an engaging, intriguing, humorous piece in a compact 80 minutes.
It takes place on the morning of Sept. 3, 1939, in Freud’s flat in the London suburb of Hampstead and projections at the rear of theater convey the slaughter and chaos of the German invasion of Poland, as later in the day France and Germany will officially enter the war.
Shelley Bolman makes Lewis, who at the time was a professor at Oxford, a decent, earnest and graceful sort as he makes the case for Christianity to a most skeptical Freud (Joel Colodner).
Lewis’ late arrival and apology – he is coming to London by train as much of London is fleeing by train to the countryside – allows Freud to get off an early zinger: “If I wasn’t 83, I would say it doesn’t matter.”
St. Germain and Colodner imbue Freud with a wry sense of humor even as he suffers debilitating pain from oral cancer, which would result in his assisted suicide later in the month
The piece doesn’t just rest on God/no God, life/afterlife debate; they discuss other life issues, such as sex, love, fidelity, and even Freud’s very decision to end his life when he could no longer tolerate the pain.
As the two men find common ground – their love of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” their past experiences with war – Lewis embraced Christianity while serving in World War I while the Nazis forced Freud to leave Vienna – the theological confrontation fades into the background. Freud wasn’t a theologian and Lewis doesn’t exactly have the passion of most Christian converts – his is more of a reasoned conversion. Their divide moves to the rear as mutual respect becomes apparent.
Freud did have a a healthy curiosity for what people believed and why they believed it, and so his grilling of Lewis and his beliefs isn’t antagonistic.
Cristina Todesco’s recreation of Freud’s study is expansive and detailed. A period telephone and radio – used by Freud to get updates on the impending war and converse with an unseen doctor – are prominent, as is the fabled couch, some armchairs and an imposing desk.
Pages taken from the books in Freud’s collection litter the stage on all sides, and a sprial leads to the back of the stage, where a video screen shows war footage to accompany the broadcast updates.
Colodner brings warmth and a sense of bonhomie to many of his roles, and it’s no surprise that this Freud – despite his pain and skepticism – exudes both while the essence of Bolman’s Lewis takes a bit longer to rise to the surface.
St. Germain, aided by Jim Petosa’s capable direction, never lets “Fred’s Last Session” get too bogged down in the muck and mire of the existence of God. Instead, we have friendly academic rivals of different stripes, one facing his mortality firmly convinced that there is nothing beyond it, and the other hoping for a reunion with Freud sometime in the infinite future.
The New Repertory Theatre’s production of Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session.” Directed by Jim Petosa. At the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through May 22. www.newrep.org.