In Freud's Last Session, the smart one-act now on view at Theatre Three, novelist and Oxford don C.S. Lewis utters this snappy line: "The greatest problem with Christianity is Christians." It sounds like something he might have written. The play uses a great many lines that Lewis, most famous for his Chronicles of Narnia, actually did say or write. But that one? Close but no cigar. It's a write-around of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians."
Witty banter and superb acting, not historical accuracy, are the strong suits of director Terry Dobson's production of the 2010 play by Mark St. Germain, said to be inspired by Armand Nicholi's book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life.
St. Germain's 75-minute piece imagines a lively conversation in 1939 London between Lewis (played by Cameron Cobb) and Sigmund Freud (Theatre Three founder Jac Alder). In the cozy, art-filled room that Freud's daughter Anna has painstakingly decorated to look like the 83-year-old doctor's study in Vienna, the men argue about the existence of God, among other topics. Freud has read Lewis' critique of Paradise Lost and invited the tweedy young Irish-born academic for tea. He tells Lewis that Milton's epic poem is his own favorite literary work.
"You were comforted by a clash between God and Satan?" Lewis asks.
"I didn't say which side I was on," answers Freud.
On they go in a friendly but fiery debate that primarily examines the nature and necessity of believing in a higher power. "An insidious lie," Freud declares. But, counters Lewis, all human beings possess "an inherent desire for a creator" and a fear of punishment in hell.
"Demons do not exist any more than gods do," Freud says.
"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell," Lewis says. (A direct quote from his book The Problem of Pain, published in 1940.)
It's all terribly clever, if sometimes too facile, as if the playwright took reams of pithy quotes by Freud and Lewis and deftly shuffled them together to make his play. (St. Germain is doing something similar with his next script about a supposed meeting between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. You gotta have a gimmick, and stacking quotes is this guy's.)
Laden with learned palaver, Freud's Last Session does have its lighter moments. Dobson has directed his actors to lean toward comedy and there are plenty of laughs at what they say and how they say it. The father of modern psychoanalysis did write The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, after all, and the play gives Freud so many punch lines he sounds like a Viennese Jackie Mason. In one bit of humorous digression, he regales Lewis with a description of his favorite performer, a Frenchman named Joseph Pujol, known professionally as Le Pétomane or "The Fartiste." Able to fart "O Sole Mio" and "La Marseillaise," Pujol was a hit on the stage of the Moulin Rouge. (All true, and besides Freud, he had fans including the Prince of Wales and King Leopold II of Belgium.) This leads to Freud telling a joke so obscure, it befuddles Lewis (and the audience). Later in the play, he delivers a better one. (With all due respect to Le Fartiste, I won't blow it by repeating it here.)
There's an unseen character in Freud's Last Session who looms heavily over the blooming friendship between the two big thinkers: Death. The play takes place on the day England enters World War II and when he's not scoring debate points and bon mots, Freud keeps turning on the radio to catch the latest reports of impending bombings. Then a frightening air raid interrupts Freud and Lewis' afternoon, sending the sick old man into a paroxysm of coughing. Diagnosed with terminal oral cancer, Freud has only weeks to live (he died in September 1939) and has to wear a torturous false jaw inside his mouth. (Warning: There's some nauseatingly real bloodletting toward the end of the play.)
Facing his own mortality but mentally alert as ever, the old doctor shares a deep secret with Lewis. He will commit suicide when the pain gets too unbearable, but he hasn't told daughter Anna of his plan. Lewis is horrified.
In these quieter, deeply human parts of the play, Alder's acting is subtle and intense. Now 77, Alder rarely appears in the shows he produces, but clearly he hasn't lost a step in the half century since he founded Theatre Three. Younger actors, including his co-star Cameron Cobb, could learn a few things from this veteran about polished timing, natural gestures and vocal modulation. As Freud, Alder is giving a powerful, mesmerizing performance. He also looks spiffy behind that bushy white beard.
Cobb, who made his Theatre Three debut earlier this year as the title character in the rock musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, is proving to be a versatile young leading man on Dallas stages. He was Shakespeare Dallas' Hamlet in 2011 and excelled in another two-person play, The Turn of the Screw, at Kitchen Dog this season. As C.S. Lewis, he's good, though he doesn't sound at all Irish (Lewis was born in Belfast). He also tends to move in ways that come off as calculated, not spontaneous. For lack of a better word, he's "actor-y."
Technically, this is one of this theater's least fussy productions this year. Costumer Wolf Orzow has dressed the men in period-appropriate suits that look a bit too sharp and fresh for the characters. Oxford dons weren't known for their fashion sense. And surely Freud's illness would've taken a toll on his physique.
Alder has also designed the set, which sets a heavy old desk and a couple of sideboards and chairs on layers of dark Oriental rugs. Statues of gods and goddesses crowd the surfaces — pretty phallic symbols, if you want to get Freudian about it. The only slip-up prop-wise is the old radio, which works too quickly when Alder's Freud clicks it on to hear the war news. Those old "wireless" sets took several seconds to warm up, though such a pause would be awkward in a play.
And there's a couch, of course. Both characters take a turn reclining onto its cushions as they bare their souls in intimate talk of sex, love, death and deities.
There is a lot to think about during and after this provocative evening of theater. And a lot more to be said about the details of this fine production.
Unfortunately, our time is up for this session. We'll have to continue next week.