As the title indicates, Christopher Hampton’s play is all about talk, and Gordon Davidson’s brisk, intense direction surmounts this built-in handicap by moving the incidents forward with hyperactive speed. Dizzyingly brief, cinematically rapid-fire scenes and a fascinating concept sustain interest. But “The Talking Cure,” which deals with the conflicted relationship between Freud and Jung, and Jung’s ethics-breaching affair with a patient, covers too much ground, makes a parody of psychoanalysis and suffers from crucial miscasting.
Carl Gustav Jung (Sam Robards) is introduced as therapist to the suicidal Sabina (Abby Brammell), who, as his wife, Emma (Sue Cremin), perceptively comments, “sounds ideal for your new talking cure.”
Jung quickly perceives that Sabina’s father beat her and that she was sexually aroused by his brutality. Before he can say, “Were you naked? Were you masturbating?” Sabina’s whole history is revealed. Since treatment of this kind, and the insights it offers, usually takes years, the split-second revelations seem ludicrous. The ornate, overinflated dialogue often is unintentionally comic.
Many of the verbal exchanges, drawn from authentic letters, sound arch when spoken. To make these tongue-twisting speeches ring out naturally, an actor of Olivier or Gielgud skill is required. Robards is alternately pompous and passionate, but unconvincing as a therapist and sexually driven lover.
At one point, when told by Sabina that it’s wrong for him to have an affair with a patient, he responds, “Not since I stopped charging you,” delivering that howler without a trace of humor or irony. No performer could redeem Jung’s awesomely egotistical statement after lovemaking, “Forgive me for overstepping the mark — I should have known, if I did, you’d want more,” but Robards’ whole approach to the part is callow.
Brammell has a fiery presence and charisma that carries her through many of the plot’s contrivances. Her bewilderingly fast changes, from murderous madness to absolute sanity, may be based on fact, but they never coalesce into one person. We witness outbursts, then watch as she becomes a therapist. After seeing her plunge a knife into Jung’s cheek, slice his face and say, “Physician, heal thyself,” it’s hard to accept her as an individual capable of healing others.
Fortunately, Harris Yulin offers an honest, thoughtful interpretation of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s ambition, intellectual arrogance and paternal, patronizing attitude are expertly conveyed. He even maintains his dignity during an absurd exchange when he loses bladder control and Jung pipes up with a suggestion that this might be a neurotic symptom. The final bitter confrontation between the two analysts also works because Yulin has the acting resources to add pain to his resentment and anger.
Cremin as the consistently pregnant Emma Jung minimizes histrionics (like Yulin) and achieves genuine pathos when admitting she hides her intelligence so her husband won’t feel threatened. Only once is Cremin’s characterization momentarily undone, when she expresses a surprising wish to become a therapist, and we can only think, “Join the crowd!”
Henri Lubatti brings flamboyant individuality to Otto Gross, an Austrian psychiatrist addicted to cocaine and morphine. Although his presence is superfluous in a scenario already unfocused by uneven attempts to concentrate on Sabina-Freud, Jung-Freud and Freud-Sabina, Lubatti is such an appealing actor that he charges the play with welcome warmth and energy. He cuts through the compulsively high-minded tone when speaking the evening’s funniest line: “I think Freud’s obsession with sex has to do with the fact that he doesn’t get any.”
Play’s physical production is superb, enhanced by Peter Wexler’s projected images of bookcases, hospitals, Jung’s home in Switzerland and Freud’s office in Vienna. Karl Fredrik Lundeberg’s restrained, tasteful piano music adds sensitivity, and Durinda Wood’s costumes are lushly detailed and period-perfect. But “The Talking Cure,” beautifully embellished around the edges, is hollow at its core.