BWW Reviews: Alley Theatre's FREUD'S LAST SESSION is Stimulating and Absorbing
The Alley Theatre's production of Mark St. Germain's Off-Broadway smash hit FREUD'S LAST SESSION is a skillful exercise in crisp, engaging theatre. The play had its World Premiere in 2009 at Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, where it became the longest-running show in that theatre's history. It opened in New York City on July 22, 2010 and moved through several Off-Broadway houses before closing on July 22, 2012, having played 775 performances. The show's sharply produced Houston premiere showcases what gave it such staying power in its hit runs in the Northeast.
The play invites audiences to imagine a meeting between legendary psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud and the then little-known professor C.S. Lewis. The year is 1939; the setting is London. Dr. Freud is nearing the end of his career and is suffering from progressed oral cancer. C.S. Lewis is invited to Dr. Freud's home, and is certain the man wishes to discuss Lewis' parodying of Freud in a recent book, but soon realizes that Freud has different plans. On the day that England enters World War II, the two men engage in an often humorous tête-à-tête centering around the existence of God, God's nature, man's suffering, our relationships with other humans, sex, love, and more. The threat of death constantly pokes its head into the conversation, giving the debate between the 83-year-old Dr. Freud and 41-year-old Professor Lewis a tangible urgency and potent meaning.
Directing FREUD'S LAST SESSION in its World Premiere, which made a commercial Off-Broadway transfer, the Chicago premiere of the play, and the Los Angeles premiere of the play, Tyler Marchant returns to direct the Houston premiere of the play. Throughout the one-act conversation, he keeps the audience attending to the production by coaching his two cast members to fully own their convictions. The stakes for the argument are high, and Tyler Marchant coaches his cast to make them entirely convincing. Moreover, as Freud and Lewis circle one another, he keeps them on equal footing. He directs the cast to show how the exchange of ideas broadens the other's humanity without ever letting one side of the debate overpower the other.
James Black as Sigmund Freud is a stalwart atheist. He supports his beliefs with a life dedicated to discovering scientifically empirical proofs to back anything decreed a fact. James Black makes his motivations clear from the beginning. In an office crowded with sacred figures from the ancient world, he dryly states, "I want to learn why a man of your [Lewis'] intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie." Infusing his performance with Freud's characteristic no-nonsense demeanor, James Black creates a character with an incredibly vibrant mind that enjoys finding answers to life's many questions. Likewise, he believably uses a rapier sharp wit to explain how humor is the mind's anecdote for terror. As he grows more impassioned in his arguments, his aged physicality and his oral cancer ground him. James Black masterfully allows the audience to viscerally experience his discomfort and pain, which elicits everything from cringes to gasps from the audience. Simply put, James Black's portrait of Sigmund Freud is compellingly human, thought provoking, and vastly entertaining.
As C.S. Lewis, Jay Sullivan brings undeniable warmth to the stage. For the entirety of his performance he radiates positivity, refusing to allow his beliefs in God to be debunked or swayed. Early on, he astutely observes, "The wish that God doesn't exist can be just as powerful as the belief he does." In this theological tennis match, Jay Sullivan's C.S. Lewis shows that he is just as skilled and intelligent a player as Dr. Freud. Without hesitation and without ever missing a beat, he pristinely executes each volley, sending the ball sailing back to Freud's side of the court time and time again. Jay Sullivan's C.S. Lewis has impressive stamina in this debate, drawing the audience further into the questions being addressed on stage.
Scenic Design by Brian Prather, who designed the show Off-Broadway as well, brilliantly and beautifully re-creates Sigmund Freud's London office on the Neuhaus stage. Comparing the set to the pictures of Freud's office on display at Freud Museum London, many of the details synch up. The only fault found in the set is that the dialogue suggests that most of the artifacts are European, hailing from the Greek and Romans; however, the set feels a bit overwhelmed by Asian arts by having several variations of the Buddha in addition to other Asian pieces as well.
Sound Design by Beth Lake, who also designed the show Off-Broadway, is powerful and deeply evocative, especially as the sound of air-raid sirens fills the performance space. Beth Lake purposefully keeps the threat of war fresh and highly believable.
Rui Rita's Lighting Design is absolutely beautiful. For a majority of the show, lights are kept at realistic levels; yet, for key moments they shift subtly to draw the focus of the audience to certain parts of the performance space. Likewise, the black flooring that frames the stage features tonal lighting that shifts from amber to blue, which proves highly effective in the performance.
FREUD'S LAST SESSION serves as an interesting evening of theatre. The play relies on the audience to have some knowledge of who Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis are, more-or-less skipping over their very textured and nuanced personal lives to present a stimulating and absorbing conversation between two modern titans.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 18 minutes with no intermission.
The Houston premiere of FREUD'S LAST SESSION, produced by the Alley Theatre, runs on the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 now through February 23, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday's at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.alleytheatre.org or call (713) 220-5700.