When playwright Mark St. Germain's theoretical meeting between esteemed atheist Sigmund Freud and emerging Christian-mythologist C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia) premiered off-Broadway in 2009, it was a clever word game between two masters trying to find common ground on sex, God, and death. Tyler Marchant's revival of Freud's Last Session, playing at the Broad Stage until February 10, lacks the balance of two evenly matched actors – necessary components to make this verbal duel a fair match.
Affable but bland, Tom Cavanagh (TV's Ed), almost disappears as Lewis in the presence of a gargantuan talent like two-time Tony Award winner Judd Hirsch (I'm Not Rappoport, Conversations With My Father) as the physically frail but still commanding Dr. Freud. Hirsch sinks his teeth into the crusty, dying man he portrays and etches out a triumphant portrayal of one of the 20th Century's great thinkers. Lewis' arguments fade in Cavanaugh's constantly wandering hands.
In the play, Freud and Lewis meet on a Sunday morning in 1939. England is preparing to enter World War II. Hitler has invaded Poland. The British Prime Minister Chamberlain addresses his constituents on the radio and air raids have begun. Freud, who fled Austria and the Nazis, has built a replica of his Vienna study in the United Kingdom. In this room, Freud and a young Lewis, who has only recently converted from an atheist to a devout believer, argue the bible, mythology and the cowardice of suicide. Their chat is interrupted by the specter of death: first by the sound of air raid sirens and the necessity for gas masks, then by the agony inflicted on Freud by his worsening oral cancer. The play is set three weeks before his death.
Hirsch is triumphant as Freud. Strip away the costume, the accent and the make-up and you still have the precise jabbing of a master thinker's opinions. Hirsch-as-Freud refuses to relinquish his convictions and uses talking points like a saber to puncture Lewis' resolve. Freud's prosthetic upper jaw that bridges his mouth from the deteriorating cells becomes more than a prop for Hirsch. It becomes a way to humanize the giant with the audience. Every time the prosthetic slips, the audience can feel each muscle in Hirsch's body tense up. It casts a pall over the conversation, as the audience is always aware that every word causes unthinkable agony and risks his fading energy, but never stops him from competing. If you didn't believe Hirsch himself was in anguish, the intensity would dissipate. That's powerful acting.
Cavanaugh is professional but too mannered as Lewis. He never seems comfortable around his co-star, which gives his character the disadvantage. As an audience we lose stock in C.S. Lewis' arguments because even though the words are there for him, Cavanaugh can't present them compellingly. His voice falls into a repetitious cadence that becomes distracting.
Had director Tyler Marchant matched Hirsch with an actor of his caliber, the play could have been volcanic. The word plays, the one-upmanship, the bouts of humor are all winning in St. Germain's text. Freud even sneakily psychoanalyses Lewis, getting the author on the proverbial couch several times. It's not accidental that St. Germain chooses the dawn of the Holocaust to set this meeting. Hitler and his representation of evil and where God's power stands amongst this evil are central to Freud and Lewis' persuasive arguments. It's as clear why one person would cling to a God when the world makes no sense as it would be for one to deny God, because were there a God, he allowed such monstrosity. St. Germain gets this all across without being pedantic.
Set designer Brian Prather has built a treasure of a sitting room, complete with volumes and volumes of books, antique statues, and as its centerpiece, the couch, warm, inviting and ready for patients to unwind and release their repressions. It's so detailed, one wishes the theater rented the set out for the evening.
For those of us forever stuck on the left coast, Judd Hirsch has been in our theaters and our living rooms with his award winning turns in Ordinary People, TV's Taxi or most recently opposite Glenn Close in Damages. Now is the chance to see the two-time Tony winner in his element. He's truly striking on the stage.
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