The imagined meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis is the premise of Mark St. Germain's play.
Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis discuss some of life’s big questions in an imagined meeting suggested by a real tete-a-tete Freud had with a young, unidentified Oxford professor. The premise of Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session,” receiving its spiffy world premiere at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 in Pittsfield, Mass., is certainly intriguing. And yet, despite two fine actors (Mark H. Dold as Lewis, Martin Rayner as Freud) doing their best to layer their performances, this two-hander never quite gets beyond the somewhat overly familiar intellectual arguments between an atheist (Freud) and a believer (the recently converted Lewis), suggesting that Germain hasn’t mined the situation for all its potential worth.
It’s 1939 when Freud, in his early 80s and in the late stages of mouth cancer, invites 40-year-old Lewis to his London study. Freud has just read “Pilgrim’s Progress,” in which Lewis has satirized Freud somewhat unflatteringly for his “bombastic self-importance; his tossing the Pilgrim to the Giant because he can’t bear to be contradicted.”
It’s never quite clear why the aging, ailing Freud has summoned the much younger Lewis on the eve of WWII, but the two quickly go at it, in a delightful, occasionally humorous sparring match of ideas that is perhaps credible only in that Germain is portraying two of the great minds of the 20th century — presenting their arguments in pristine prose others might have trouble articulating through many drafts of writing, let alone spontaneous speech.And yet the pros and cons for belief or nonbelief feel a bit familiar, despite how well articulated they are here: For example, if there is a God, how could he/she allow such suffering? To that question Lewis retorts, “If pleasure is his whisper, pain is his megaphone.”
Helping this all go down nicely is a terrific set by Brian Prather that seems to reflect Freud’s personality and the time period; the costumes (both men look crisp and dapper in their jackets and vests) further help to make this time-traveling adventure feel real.
But at less than 80 minutes, the piece leaves one wishing Germain had further explored the personal lives of these two men. It’s easy to compare it, perhaps unfairly, with the film “My Dinner With Andre,” in which the conversation digressed to so many different topics. Here, too, the work picks up speed and texture — and, more important, specificity — whenever Freud and Lewis, too briefly, move away from the larger questions and into the more particular reasons for such divergent beliefs. For as everyone knows, God is in the details.