Terry Johnson’s dark comedy of Sigmund Freud’s last hours is a tantalizing, if intellectually facile, hodgepodge of theatrical styles and tones that alternately winks, soars and thuds through Freud’s morphine-induced dying dreams. A refugee from Nazi Vienna, Freud (David Margulies) spent the last year of his life in London working on his final book, “Moses and Monotheism,” and receiving visitors from around the world.
Although in great pain from cancer, Freud maintained his dignified stature as a Viennese bourgeois, who also happened to be the father of psychoanalysis.
Playwright Johnson weaves an often farcical fantasy around Freud’s final hours, introducing the colorful, narcissistic surrealist Salvador Dali (Richard Libertini) and Freud’s dour personal physician Abraham Yahuda (Kenneth Mars), who flit around the tortured Freud like a couple of flies around rotting meat.
However, the most unwelcome visitor of all is Jessica (Anna Gunn), the daughter of Rebecca S., one of Freud’s most famous patients in his work on hysteria.
Jessica is a student of psychology, and has broken into Freud’s study to discover the truth of her mother’s childhood molestation, which had been reported to Freud many years earlier in psychoanalysis.
Jessica’s allegation that her mother’s molestation was real, not imagined, cuts to the heart of a debate that still rages today, and was the basis of some of Freud’s conclusions about human, and more specifically female, psychology.
Unfortunately, this is very well-trodden territory, and Johnson’s play adds virtually nothing to the debate.
Instead, the real/imagined conflict becomes simply an intellectual backdrop for a range of razzle-dazzle theatrics that run from dramatic monologues to boulevard farce.
In fact, what the play resembles most is a good, old-fashioned British sex farce spruced up with some intellectual frou-frou. Not bad for a couple of hours of entertainment, but at its heart, the play is a somewhat empty exercise.
The acting is uneven, with Margulies and Gunn at the emotionally grounded/carefully crafted end of the performance spectrum. Margulies is wonderful, navigating with quiet intensity from wild farce to intensely personal drama and back again. Gunn is also fine, particularly in evoking the darker moments.
Mars, on the other hand, is disappointingly flat, and Libertini never seems to bring the prancing Dali alive.
In the play’s American premiere, director Phyllida Lloyd is often guilty of falling back on theatrical tricks, although she sticks rigorously to the twists and turns in the play’s tone.
Set and costume designer Mark Thompson produces a memorable set that deconstructs into one of the more fantastical tableaux in theater during the play’s final moments.