This review was corrected on February 3, 2005.
Sex! Madness! Scandal! Horny psychiatrists! Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein was only a slip of a girl in 1906 (and locked up in a mental institution as a hopeless psychotic) when the great Carl Jung took on her cure and changed the course of psychoanalytic history. In Willy Holtzman’s romantic treatment (previously presented by Primary Stages in a 1996 production directed by Melia Bensussen), young Sabina was shamelessly used and abused in the psychosexual triangle that developed among Spielrein, Jung and Freud. Given back her voice in Ethan McSweeny’s handsome revival, the brilliant theoretician makes an eloquent case for herself.
Tall, supple, and spacey, Marin Ireland (“4.48 Psychosis”) gives spooky credibility to Sabina as a catatonic mental patient traumatized by her experiences during a pogrom in her native Russia. Brought back to life by Jung’s patient ministrations, this young Jewish girl dazzles the goyishe married doc with her seductive mind and physical passion.
Trussed up in Michael Sharpe’s period-appropriate straitjacket suits, Victor Slezak (“Salome”) as Jung reels convincingly from the double whammy of finding a beautiful mind in a sexy body. Although helmer McSweeny (“The Best Man”) milks the pre-coital buildup in the first act, Ireland and Slezak go for the psychosexual gold when Sabina initiates Jung into her seductive theories of the death instinct and its arousal through the poetic avenue of mythology.
The sensual allure of her analytic mind has an additional aesthetic spokesman in Michael Roth’s violin music, hauntingly played by Batya MacAdam-Somer.
All this head stuff is pretty, well, heady, as Jung absorbs and appropriates his pupil-patient’s revolutionary theories as his own. But it’s the earthy physical stuff that gives the shrink pause when Freud, impressed as hell with Jung’s groundbreaking case study of Sabina, designates the up-and-coming analyst as his professional heir and proposes to take him on a career-making tour of America — provided he has not disgraced the master by having an affair with a patient, or anything scandalous like that.
Peter Strauss is over-reverential to Freud, but he looks the scholarly part and unbends nicely when Sabina gets her hands on him. Although far less flashy, Adam Stein’s understated perf as Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger completes the canvass of shrinks bitten and smitten by this brainy woman.
The dramatic conflict is pretty clear: Will Jung do the ethical thing by Sabina, or will he snatch her work and send her back to Russia, where she is sure to be killed by the Nazis? Anyone in the psychoanalytic-history know — or who has read Aldo Carotenuto’s publication of the extraordinary diaries and letters of Freud, Jung and Spielrein on which this play was based — can fill in the blanks of Holtzman’s overly rushed resolution. But they shouldn’t have to.
There are serious gaps in the narrative, including a breathless sprint to summarize the stunning breakup between Freud and Jung, and auds that have been genuinely caught up in the intellectual dynamic might well go staggering out of the theater in a fog.