Freud’s Last Session produced by the Guthrie Theater at the Dowling Studio

CAPTION: Freud 4128 Robert Dorfman as Sigmund Freud in the Guthrie Theater's production of Freud's Last Session by Mark St. Germain. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

CAPTION: Freud 4128
Robert Dorfman as Sigmund Freud in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

The Guthrie has borrowed from the current Off-Broadway theater for its new play, Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain. It’s cropping up from one coast to the other. Apparently there’s a hunger for a straightforward, intellectual, “talky” play – a meaty actor’s piece with no flash, no fantasy or women. Well, well! This is certainly interesting!

The conceit is an imagined meeting between Sigmund Freud, played by Robert Dorfman, and C.S. Lewis, played by Peter Christian Hansen, just as W.W. II is underway. What could have been a brittle debate between two intellectuals guarding their turf was, instead, a piquant, intriguing and, yes, heartwarming experience. Dorfman and Hansen create just the right mix of salt, sour and sweet. What a duo!

The playwright chose to create a milieu that didn’t just allow for a civilized discussion, but it opened the door for the two to have a deeper understanding of each other as people. Lewis was not yet the established expert that Freud was. Interestingly, this didn’t create an imbalance in the dramatic relationship. Hansen’s Lewis held his own as the “upstart,” without being smug; Dorfman’s Freud shredded Lewis’ arguments without demeaning the man.

The Dowling Studio Theater is the perfect house for this play. Set designer Michael Locher and lighting designer Frank Butler turned it into a house of illusion for pre-set: Were there people on the other side, or am I looking at a mirror? The curtain of vapors dissipated to reveal the other half of the audience—looking at us, too.

That metaphor is quickly overtaken, however, by the presence of the great Sigmund Freud, a fugitive from the Nazis in his native Austria, living in a London apartment and suffering from incurable cancer. Into this uprooted environment, a young C.S. Lewis appears, and the provocative “what if” is set in motion. What is Lewis doing there? He thinks he’s in some trouble for lambasting the great doctor’s views in a recent book. He is mistaken. There is an even more profound purpose afoot.

Even so, as much as Freud is suffering, Lewis, a combat veteran of “The Great War,” has his own sicknesses to heal. Their concern for each other, though they had just met, was the force that powered the action, and the lesson that was never spoken: in spite of differences, good human beings care for each other.

The sparring hinges on the two characters opposing views on religion. Freud says it is, essentially, an infantile notion; C.S. Lewis has arrived at the opposite conclusion through an equally logical method, in his line of thought. The dialog dances along the top of these ideas, entertaining with its insightful one-liners, but choosing not to mine the idea much further. The clever repartee is engaging and even funny, but what’s the point?

Freud, we learn, invited Lewis there to tell him his intention to commit suicide. This was not as clear as it should have been early on. Perhaps Dorfman’s bursts of shouting his indignations, fast-held opinions and frustrations masked rather than illuminated the dying man’s motivations. By the ending it was clear enough, but it took a while to bring the audience into his confidence and the distance hurt the play’s impact.

Still, this is, at the least, an entertaining piece of theater. Before the end of the run, I predict it will have a niche community of Freud and Lewis devotees flooding the box office, so you might want to queue up before that happens. Directed by Rob Melrose, the play runs through March 16.


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