Review: FREUD ON COCAINE at Whitefire Theatre

fearless, outrageous and addictive, don't this miss this jolt to senses through May 3

By: Apr. 02, 2024
Review: FREUD ON COCAINE at Whitefire Theatre
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Freud on Cocaine is the return of a hit new play at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.  It has an addictive, outrageous, demented genius. This is its second hit run at the Whitefire Theatre with many sold out shows.  The play by writer-director Howard Skora is many things: a crazy dude-bro stoner type comedy, a historical biopic, a Timothy Leary mind expansion drug trip, a hard-hitting addiction drama, and a razor-sharp social satire about Big Pharma.  But Freud on Cocaine is also, quite simply, glorious fun.

Review: FREUD ON COCAINE at Whitefire Theatre
ensemble of Freud on Cocaine

Set in 19th century Vienna, Freud on Cocaine plunges headlong into Freud’s real-life cocaine addiction.  We witness the birth, not only of psychoanalysis, but also of psychopharmacology and Big Pharma.  In the first act, it is all fun and games, as cocaine gives a young dorky Freud (Jonathan Slavin) confidence, and the career advancement and money necessary to marry his beloved Martha (Sara Maraffino) and lure her away from her tyrannical mother (Sigute Miller).  Freud takes money and cocaine samples from a pharmaceutical giant (Barry Brisco), and later, their competitor.  Both competing drug companies are still in business to this day, one now subsumed into Pfizer and the other still operating as Merck.  Publicly hawking cocaine for Big Pharma, Freud proclaims its safety, its benefits, its lack of side effects, and its non-addictive qualities in their subsidized medical journals.  He even treats his pregnant wife, his mother in law, his patients, and his best friend and colleague, a heroin addict (Aaron LaPlante), with cocaine to cure their ailments.

The lunatic quality of all this makes for outrageous and disturbing madcap humor, and it feels like an extended stand up or Saturday Night Live skit.  The roars of laughter from the audience are non stop.

Freud on Cocaine is in that very rare genre of audacious, skit-flavored dark comedy that happens to be coming from historical fact.  The only thing I can compare it to is a 2017 film that I utterly adore, The Death of Stalin, which makes the NKVD, purges, thought policing, and the political fallout of Stalin’s last hours into a hilarious black comedy.   

Review: FREUD ON COCAINE at Whitefire Theatre
Sara Maraffino and Jonathan Slavin

In the second act of Freud on Cocaine, things fall apart, which would not surprise anyone who has ever been, or known, an addict.  And the play switches gears from a freaky and hilarious romp into a weighty drama.  Yet both lunatic slapstick and serious drama feel appropriate in exploring Freud’s addiction and theorizing.

Not all the broad humor work equally, and some scenes feel a bit rough around the edges.  There is a fuzziness and lack of precision that can feel a bit jarring from time to time.  Barry Brisco is an outrageously talented and charismatic actor who leans into a delicious queenliness as Emanel Merck, and I loved his campy, gossipy, queer take on the pharmaceutical giant.  Yet for reasons I cannot quite put my finger on, not all his scenes with Jonathan Slavin seem to fully come together. 

Freud on Cocaine can still have the roughness of a skit quality about it.  Somehow, I think that is also part of its loose, organic, devil-may-care, hilarious charm.   There are great performances throughout from a fearless and vibrant cast, who make the play compulsively watchable. 

Review: FREUD ON COCAINE at Whitefire Theatre
Aaron LaPlante and Jonathan Slavin

I particularly love Aaron LaPlante, ferociously brilliant as Freud’s heroin addict friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, and in some ways, the beating heart of the play.  LaPlante's performance is a revelation — risky, boundlessly charismatic, unbelievably hilarious, and yet for all in its over the top shenanigans, profoundly affecting and truthful.

Freud’s cocaine use has always fascinated me.  Long swept under the rug for as an embarrassing footnote or popping up as a clickbait headline (Sigmund Freud was a cokehead!), it seems that only in the last decade or so that Freud’s wholehearted embrace of cocaine and his addiction have been treated as worthy of broader investigation and conversation.  An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug, Cocaine by Howard Markel brought a lot of attention to the subject, and there is also David Cohen’s Freud on Coke.

Review: FREUD ON COCAINE at Whitefire Theatre
Jonathan Slavin

To me, Freud’s writing and theorizing often have that grandiose, strung out, bipolar tinge of cocaine, taking him into places of free-associating insight, fearlessness, and brilliance in long manic rants.  There is also unconscionable cruelty and stupidity.  Witness his butchery and gaslighting of his patient Emma Eckstein (played with utter genius here in a truly unforgettable and glorious performance by Amy Smallman-Winston). 

Beyond entertainment, there are pressing questions to be asked about the significance of Freud’s addiction and the 19th century emergence of the lasting symbiotic relationship between the medical establishment, dangerous drugs, and Big Pharma.

Any modern assessment of Freud has to somehow acknowledge his genius and the vitality and importance of his legacy, while also admitting the tomfoolery of his whimsical 19th century junk science, his hard-to-take misogyny, his arrogance, cruelty and abuse of patients.  While a humanizing and modernizing figure in his own time in many ways, we also have to look at Sigmund Freud a bit through our own lens.  Freud is regarded as the father of psychology and his legacy of therapy, psychiatric treatment and psychopharmacology continues through the present time.  In my own wide reading regarding Freud’s legacy from every perspective imaginable (from fawning hero worship to dutiful academic treatise to radical take-down), I have to say that Freud on Cocaine actually seems in some ways the most well-rounded, reasonable and interesting approach.  Freud on Cocaine is quite a remarkable achievement.

Review: FREUD ON COCAINE at Whitefire Theatre
Jonathan Slavin and Sara Maraffino

The Freud that emerges here is neither hero nor villain, but kind of a mess, relatable in his massive screw ups, inspiring in his better moments.  There is a lot of shading and humanity in the tremendous, bold writing from playwright Howard Skora.

I think that I can safely say there is nothing else quite like Freud on Cocaine out there.  It is, suitably for its subject, radically addictive, fearless, a bit insane, and a total jolt to the senses.  It is superb.  Don’t miss it.

Photos by Darren Rafel

Freud on Cocaine is at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks through May 3.  The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423.  You can get tickets by calling (818) 687-8559 or clicking the button below:


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