Freud's Last Session: Theater Review

Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh
An unsurprising play about an imagined meeting between author C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud at the start of World War II bandies familiar arguments about faith in the existence of God.

Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis debate faith in this two-man staging in Santa Monica.

Sigmund Freud (Judd Hirsch) has fled Austria for sanctuary in London as he awaits certain death from oral cancer, chafing from a prosthesis replacing his removed upper jaw and palate. As he nervously tunes in the radio for news of the invasion of Poland by Germany (and, as we hear, a contingent from Slovakia – the Soviet Union would not invade from the east for two more weeks), he entertains a guest in his office, C.S. Lewis (Tom Cavanagh), a veteran of the last Great War, not yet the influential, popular literary figure he would become.

Lewis believes Freud has been offended by his satirical portrayal of him in a recent book, but Freud instead has extended his invitation out of curiosity about Lewis’ ideas in an essay on Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he claims to be his favorite work of literature. Lewis in his thirties had experienced a conversion from atheism to orthodox Christianity, and the men inevitably bicker and contend over their conflicting ideas about a deity, each contending that logic favors their view.

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Of course, while contemporary attitudes may tend to devalue Freud’s stature while nevertheless absorbing his theories inextricably into our perceptions of motivations, in this disputation Freud relentlessly has the better of the argument, particularly in a society whose concepts of faith fracture it into tribes incapable of communicating on virtually any issue.

Therein lies the appeal of Mark St. Germain’s play, which ran two years off-Broadway to great audience acclaim: Freud and Lewis converse passionately with evident intellectual fervor, and they accord one another the mutual respect of good faith colloquy. This warmth between two men who have just met, and who ferociously disagree, becomes the primary note struck by the actors and pleases an audience eager to feel good about itself.

It’s a worthwhile principle, though not nearly enough a foundation for any substantive drama. Or, for that matter, particularly meaningful discussion. With the possible exception of isolated undergraduates, the question of debating God’s existence seems almost quaint, of even less utility than endless inquiries as to what is art. There’s not much heft to the play of ideas onstage, and virtually no material dramatic foundation beyond an exercise in speculation and self-congratulation. This is a heartily bourgeois piece of theater, which admittedly has its place, but need it continue to take up so much of the space in our official culture? 

Venue: The Broad Stage, Santa Monica (runs through Feb. 10)

Cast: Judd Hirsch, Tom Cavanagh

Director: Tyler Marchant

Playwright: Mark St. Germain, suggested by "The Question of God" by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

Set designer: Brian Prather

Lighting designer: Clifton Taylor

Costume designer: Mark Mariani

Sound designer: Beth Lake

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