We don’t know whether defiant nonbeliever Sigmund Freud (Judd Hirsch) ever actually met devout Christian convert C.S. Lewis (Tom Cavanagh), let alone whether they discussed God together in London the day World War II began, 9/3/39. But the possibility of a meeting of minds is the intriguing conceit behind Mark St. Germain’s nationally popular “Freud’s Last Session,” finally arrived in L.A. with original Barrington Stage helmer Tyler Marchant attached. The Broad Stage production is uneven but never less than involving, a gratifying experience for those seeking some substance along with their wit and poignancy.
The casual conversation ranges widely, from Hitler to British war preparations, from famous French “fartiste” Pujol to father figures. (No surprise, each genius ends up on Freud’s couch by the end.) But topic A, the existence of a divinity that shapes our ends, is never far from their lips because of topic B, the excruciating mouth cancer from which the older man is visibly withering away as he speaks.
As an atheist in his particularly grim foxhole, Freud entertains few hopes for Eternity: The Bible is “myths and legends,” and believers suffer from an “infantile obsessional neurosis….Grow up!” But he can’t help be curious as to how such a superior intellect as Lewis’s can fall for the religious bushwa, and he’s too much the scientist not to listen to the evidence and keep testing his own conclusions.
Hirsch is marvelous as Freud, tetchy and arrogant and completely real. He has often played prickly professionals before, notably in “Ordinary People” and the recent “This Must Be the Place,” but this turn is a cut above in terms of vulnerability and self-discovery. The need to express and cope with Freud’s physical pain seems to have empowered the thesp to hang stubbornly onto his convictions like a banner, in one of what he calls humanity’s “feeble attempts to control chaos.” It’s a remarkable example of refined yet gutsy acting.
Hirsch gets the better of Cavanagh because of the latter’s strangely jolly affectlessness. Lacking all sense of the convert filled with intense Spirit, Cavanagh tosses off a line like “History is filled with monsters, and yet somehow we survive” as if he already knew how the war and Hitler would end up; you expect him to giggle “Pip pip, cheerio” while summoning his butler Jeeves. If Marchant was trying to lighten up the character in contrast to the dour Freud, he and Cavanaugh had better pull things back in the other direction.
Some may find the men too “Sunshine Boys” quippy — Freud: “Psychoanalysis doesn’t profess the arrogance of religion, thank God” — and the distillation of their views too thin. But as a primer on high-level theological views, “Session” is probably as deep as a popular entertainment can get, and satisfyingly tight to boot. And a central silent sequence, in which Lewis gets to perform Christian charity rather than just talk about it, is beautifully staged and played by all concerned.
Brian Prather’s set is a detailed marvel, reflecting emigre longing for an Old World about to go up in flames.