Freud’s Last Session
One of the most reliable battlefields in modern drama is the meeting of great minds. Grab two brilliant people with opposing viewpoints, toss them in a room together and see what happens.
Throwing his hat into this genre's ring is Mark St. Germain with "Freud's Last Session," currently playing at the Arden Theatre. Already no stranger to the dramatization of notable figures with his "Camping With Henry and Tom," St. Germain uses Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis in ways that are abundantly smart but only sporadically compelling.
To be fair, St. Germain has a killer setup: Pit an atheist psychoanalyst and a Christian fantasy novelist against each other in a religious debate, employ Germany's impending bombing of London as a ticking clock, and add Freud's oral cancer as a nice transition tool.
Having parodied Freud in his most recent book, Lewis (Todd Scofield), early in his career, accepts an invitation to meet the famed neurologist. As they receive updates on World War II via radio, they launch almost immediately into a heated debate.
A number of topics are touched on in a brisk 75 minutes, most of all religion. St. Germain has clearly done his research, and admirably does not choose sides in the debate. At the show's close, no definitive answers could be reached -- and indeed, how could they be -- but there is at least a semblance of an understanding.
However, while the debates are intriguing, the dialogue often lacks a real dramatic spark. It is never less than fascinating, but it is sometimes less than entertaining.
When compared to Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon," which expertly turned a series of interviews into a taut political thriller, the dialogue in "Freud's Last Session" at times feels almost as antiquated as the ancient figures on Freud's desk.
There are moments when St. Germain gives the show a bout of urgency, with sudden moments of shock such as an air raid siren or a handkerchief of blood. But these moments are few and far between and, not for lack of trying, they feel more like temporary distractions than necessary elements to the story.
Yet when the text fails to compel, the production picks up the slack. Howie not only looks and sounds like Freud, but he also captures the quick-witted, unsmiling eccentricity that made him such an enigmatic figure. His struggles, both internal and external, feel spontaneous and are a joy to watch.
Scofield's Lewis is a quieter figure, with a posture that suggests he is providing defense at his own trial. His performance is more mannered, less impulsive. While this may be the point, it keeps the character from being fully absorbing, a problem in a two-hander.
Still, the Arden's production is impressive: Ian Merrill Peakes' direction is sharp and well-paced, David P. Gordon's handsome set has an authentic feel and Jorge Cousineau delivers a stellar sound design.
And after all, there's a certain voyeuristic joy in watching a great debate. Having just wrapped up a particularly over-analyzed political season, perhaps what we need is a cordial debate without the future of the world at stake. That actually sounds rather nice.
"Freud's Last Session" runs through Dec. 23 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St. in Philadelphia. For tickets and information, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.