“Last Session”: Freud and C.S. Lewis Debate, Don’t Dig

In a quietly elegant London office, two highly educated men meet. One is a cynical atheist, the other a recently converted Christian. Both care passionately about where human life is going, but they disagree about almost  everything in Earth and heaven.

While they argue, hell arrives. It’s the first week of September 1939, and World War II interrupts them — first with radio broadcasts, then with air-raid sirens.

It’s a great moment. And these are great characters — Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, in the final weeks of his life, and C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s most effective modern spokesmen, months before his sudden rise to fame.

Martin Rayner, Martyn Stanbridge (photo: Enci Box)

Playwright Mark St. Germain brings them together (they never met in real life). The Oxford don isn’t seeking Freud’s counsel about his life, professional or intimate. Nor is the Viennese doctor, ravaged by oral cancer,  looking for spiritual guidance.

Herein lies the play’s one weak spot — and alas, it’s a major one. The characters are compelling, but they do not meet for any compelling reason; there’s not much at stake. They simply meet to debate. Mind you, it is fun. Their uniquely forceful ideas — and their equally distinctive personalities — almost lead us us ignore the dramatic void at the center.

Once upon a time, gentlemen debated (yes, gentlemen: no women invited, no one from the underclasses either). They politely crossed verbal swords, not to vanquish one another but to expose their ideas — and their skill and wit.

That happens here, and the two gain respect for each other. But it isn’t enough. The issues they raise — which the Nazi bombers brutally
underscore — are too large and too serious for polite dueling in a gentlemen’s club.

At one point, Freud is strangling in his own blood and Lewis must reach into the doctor’s  mouth to remove a prosthesis. At another, Freud probes swiftly and ruthlessly into the heart of Lewis’s complex living arrangements and the emotional conflicts they embody. These moments open doors into a deeper reality, the one that has bred the mad horror being unleashed on the world — but the play doesn’t enter either door. It turns back.

What we get, in the end, is the mutual respect of two adroit debaters. What we need — and what the world we’ve lived in since World War II cries for — are the deeper forms of love (agape, philia) these characters move toward, but from which they get pulled back. This is the playwright’s failure of nerve.

The creators of this production, on the other hand, do not hold back. Set designer Pete Hickok and prop master Josh La Cour place us at once in the civilized comfort of Freud’s book-lined, artifact-laden study; the lights and sounds wrought by Derrick McDaniel and  Christopher Moscatiello establish and then gradually destroy that peace. And Kim Deshazo’s costumes set the Viennese’s habitual formality against the Oxonian’s more casual (even careless) style.

The performers likewise bring everything to the task. Martin Rayner animates his striking likeness of Freud with an emotional volatility we don’t often imagine. Martyn Stanbridge’s diffident Lewis nicely gains confidence as he gets to know his world-famous senior. Both are kept moving – with purpose — by director Robert Mandel, so this two-hander never loses energy or focus.

As usual at the Odyssey, the production values are high. The writing is intelligent, witty, and often surprising; it’s a shame St. Germain doesn’t dig deeper than a debate and venture into the depths that Freud — and Lewis — would surely have braved.
Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. Germain, directed by Robert Mandel.
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Ave., LA 90025.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through March 4th.
Special shows:
Wednesdays, Jan. 24 and Feb. 21, at 8:00;
Thursdays, Feb. 8 and Mar. 1, at 8:00.

Tickets: <www.odysseytheatre.com>