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.