If I could throw a dinner party and only invite 8 people, living or dead, I’ve often wondered who’d make the cut. Up until last week when The San Jose Rep opened Freud’s Last Session, it had not occurred to me to include Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. Thank goodness for live theatre people, otherwise I’m afraid I would have made a very egregious exclusion from my imaginary get-together. Post show, I’ve correct my error and added them both.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I thought maybe I wasn’t mature enough to see a show that was 1/2 Sigmund Freud. I mean come on. He comes loaded with jokes and “baggage” attached to his name and character, right? I have, and perhaps I’m not the only one, a distinct image in my mind of what he should be and I don’t even know if I want to be around him. As an actor, finding balance between factual representation and an army of expectations could be on par with the quest for the Holy Grail. How is that accent, wire rim glasses and a couch not going to seem trite, cheesy and ingenuous? And, yet if he didn’t look and sound the part, you could pretty much write him off then and there. Well, you don’t have to fret, I don’t know how it was done, not entirely anyway, but Freud is alive and kicking’ it in San Jose. C. S Lewis, though far fewer requirement to satisfy my reality perhaps, also, amazingly easy to believe and enjoy. Yes, I bought it. All of it. I was sold. Immediately and effortlessly. I’d say they nailed it, but then my immaturity might take this review to a different and not so well-lit place.
True, we are visually prepared even before the show starts by the beautifully detailed set which plants the first seeds of a truly a voyeuristic experience (Sigmund would be so tickled at that phrasing, no?) I was not only transported back in time with set dressing and ambient/practical lighting, I was deposited in the form of a fly on the great wall of Freud’s study, a true silent observer, witness to an enthralling conversation as it unfolded. In fact, aside from the momentary reality check when some total idjit’s cell phone rang, TWICE, I felt 100% contained behind the 4th wall, peering secretly in on two intellectual equals go at it. Hard to do and done superbly.
About 80 minutes with no intermission was a perfect length, too. I couldn’t have taken one minute more without a mental timeout or without it potentially dragging. Content is cerebral, but by no means requires any intimate knowledge of either Lewis or Freud’s work/lives as the light exposition I think gives one enough of a foundation to stay continually engaged. More familiarity with the men certainly may have added another level but there was plenty of meat on the bone for the non-academic to be sure. This show had intellect of course, but it also had heart and drama and a delightful amount of humor that ran the gamut from self-effacing and direct to dry and yes, owning up to the obvious , but still hilarious occasional innuendo. If only our political debates we so civil, so cerebral, so entertaining and so on the level. But, I digress.
At the core of what really amounts to a conversation more than a plotted story (and what I personally found most intriguing) were two men who at one time had similar beliefs and now find themselves at fundamentally opposing sides to a very big question. I too found myself initially picking a side if you will, but due to the smart writing and superior performances, I submitted somehow to playing the role of a totally unbiased observer from start to finish. These two men on stage got me listening so intently, I quite willingly suppressed nearly all of my usual internal commentary. This was a conversation between two men, not two actors and me. THAT, is difficult and commendable.
I have to give a shout to whoever made the decision (likely the director, possibly the writer, potentially the actors) to spend so much of the real juicy debate standing up. I noticed this almost right away. It would have been so easy to have the men stay sitting or to force them to move just to give it more visual variety, but I felt it was absolutely authentic to have the men standing, facing each other during some of the most complex, spontaneous and tangential arguments. Intellectual debate happens on the fly and when they started to really dig and defend it happened when they weren’t conveniently sitting down. And, yet the standing didn’t make it overly melodramatic or angry. They kept it “in character” without being caricatures. Small thing yes, but it really struck me as an understanding of how these men were connecting and where academic argument crossed over into the personal and emotional, it happened on the vertical.
My only wish is that this hadn’t been such a tightly written piece. I know that’s an odd criticism, I don’t ACTUALLY wish that, but I did feel like everything they were saying was essential and deep and deserved to be savored or explored. I wanted to “work” a bit more, to contribute. Instead these gentlemen responded in real-time to each other and each of them asked the questions, made the jokes and responded in a way that made me feel, perhaps the playwright was in my head, predicting where I would go and going there first, so as to keep me in the moment. And, indeed I was, actively listening, not actively judging for most of it. Meticulous pacing both in the artfully crafted writing and the acting really produced a wonderfully scientific absorption-of-concept type experience, keeping me in the scene, but primed to regurgitate and ruminate later. That sounds gross, but see the show and maybe that last sentence won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. Again, probably not the best terminology, no matter.
Conclusion: 4 ½ jewels in the review tiara for a thoroughly captivating, layered and intelligent work of theater in a gorgeous space. The show marvelously presented two fascinating men of history, who I knew little about, and immediately made me want to know more (not to mention invite them over for tea.) Freud’s Last Session plays through November 4th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre in Downtown.