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American Premiere of Hampton's 'The Talking Cure' Needs Therapy

Being a student of history, I have always loved historical plays, as they seem to bring the past to life in a way text on a page simply cannot. Unfortunately, Christopher Hampton's latest play, "The Talking Cure," in its American Premiere Thursday evening at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, under the direction of Gordon Davidson, has much more interesting and fascinating production notes in the program than any of the action on stage would suggest.

 

The story should be a bit more difficult to explain, but the play quickly distills a ten year relationship between the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and his protégé, Carl Jung (who made quite a name for himself in the field, much to the consternation of Freud), into a kind of soap opera, with a young women, Sabina Spielrein, coming intellectually between the two great minds.

 

While it is fascinating to learn how this woman, who suffered bouts of melancholy, was institutionalized and placed under the care of Jung, benefits from the then unknown field of therapy (i.e. 'The Talking Cure") and goes onto become a psychologist herself. In the process, however, she discovers the root of her current illness was the history of sexual arousal in her youth whenever she was scolded or humiliated. It is also through these sessions that she also seems to sexually awaken Jung, which makes the philosopher begin to question his own ideologies.

 

In doing so, Jung's sexual liaisons with Spielrein marks the beginning of the end of the professional relationship and friendship between Freud and Jung. In the play, and in his works, Freud contends that life is as it is, and one must accept the life that they have. Jung, however, is more spiritually optimistic, and through his relationship with Spielrein, begins to believe that man must have hope for what life may be. Jung holds himself as an example, for he once believed that as a married man, he would honor that marriage as a monogamous relationship, and thus, like Freud professed, he accepted that life. Spielrein, however, awakened in him a new fire, and the happiness she brought him pushed him to challenge Freud's teachings.

 

All of this sounds well and good, and is fascinating to read. However, when it is played out in front of you, in a seemingly rudderless production by Davidson, the play seems to buckle under its own pretentiousness, and the lifeless, emotionless performances by most of the main actors. Sam Robards, who plays Jung, is particularly at fault, as even in his most passionate moments he seems to be more analytical than emotional. Ditto for Abby Bremmell as Spielrein (in her professional stage debut) who seems to have watched one too many movies about how an insane person (who subsequently becomes sane) should act and rolled them up into this performance. 

 

Harris Yulin, as Freud, fares a little better, but seems to make Freud more of a comic figure in his early scenes than I think anyone would envision the man to be, though this may simply be due to his having to read some of Mr. Hampton's unneeded cringe-inducing lines. For instance, Jung calls the new talking cure "psych-analysis." Freud rebukes him, calling it "Psych-O-analysis," to which Jung replies, "Oh?" Freud chuckles and says, "Yes, I thought it sounded better that way."

 

In addition, there are many unnecessary and distracting references and foreshadowing of World War I and World War II throughout the piece, which seem to have no basis whatsoever, or relation, to the two philosophers. Granted one was Jewish and the other Aryan, but there is nothing in the historical record, or in the play, for that matter, that seems to even hint at any relation between the two men and the subsequent tragic events on the European continent. The few instances where this happens seems to come out of nowhere, and only adds to the pretentiousness of the piece, as if it were trying to be even deeper than it already isn't.

 

Sadly, the technical aspects of the evening seem to drag down the evening as well, with Peter Wexler's cumbersome and confusing set design as the main culprit. What first appears on stage is a simple white set; an asylum suggested Stage Right and the Jung household projected Stage Left. As the play goes on however, beds and desks rise from the floor, medical curtains of the asylum give way to a kind of stage wide shower curtain constantly drawn back and forth, and a series of projections give us Freud's office, a lake in Zurich, an ocean liner, and finally the exterior of Jung's residence. The constant changing of the sets, facilitated by simple blackout direction of Davidson, greatly interrupted the action on stage, and made for a number of awkward entrances and exits for the actors. Reading that the production of the play at Britain's Royal National Theatre ran two and a half hours, while the Taper production runs well over two forty-five leads me to suspect that a good fifteen minutes of the evening is taken up by the extraneous set changes. A few missed sound and lighting cues, as well, did little to improve on the evening's events.

 

Fortunately, there is one bright spot of the evening - the dynamic performance of Henri Lubatti as fellow psychologist Otto Gross. Lubatti had a rich history of the man to draw from, for Gross was a doctor who was more than willing to help any of his female patients relieve their stress through a quick sexual tryst, as well as relieve himself of any worries with a habit of opium and cocaine consumption. It is Jung's interactions with Gross which finally helps Jung break through the strict regime of Freud's school, as Gross encourages him to enjoy a life of "sexual immorality," with Spielrein. Unlike the other actors in the company, however, Lubatti truly brings the eccentricity of Gross to life, and acts as a kind of cocaine for the audience, his talent energizing the theatre in a remarkable and electrifying performance. 

 

Spielrein at one point in the play says quite prophetically, "only the clash of destructive forces can create something new." Sadly the destructive forces of "The Talking Cure" have only created something mediocre.

 

The Talking Cure, by Christopher Hampton, directed by Gordon Davidson.

Performances from April 4 – May 23, 2004 at the Mark Taper Forum, in downtown Los Angeles. For more information or to order tickets, please visit www.taperahmanson.com.

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