One handsome set, two complex characters, a gripping intellectual contest, even a few smart laughs — pack this one up and ship it out. Mark St. Germain got the idea for the philosophical battle between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis he dramatizes in “Freud’s Last Session” from a deep-think book by a Harvard professor. But there’s nothing stuffy about this lively two-character play, which takes place in Freud’s London study on the day that England enters World War II, giving painful urgency to the heated arguments between the two adversaries about the existence of God and the acts of man.
Brian Prather’s detailed set design of Freud’s much photographed study could fit into any theater, but it looks especially fine in the West Side YMCA’s Little Theater, lately renamed for the philanthropist who lent a generous hand to the restoration of this historic bandbox theater, which saw the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke.”
That familiar couch, heaped with those equally famous Oriental rugs, holds prominent place in this book-lined room, as does the big oak desk which the father of psychoanalysis covered with tabletop statues of classical gods. But on this particular September morning in 1939, the only object of interest to Freud (Martin Rayner) is the radio, which brings the dire news that the German invasion has begun.
St. Germain (“Camping With Henry and Tom”) presents us with a compelling study of this towering figure at the end of his life. Although suffering from the cancer that would carry him off in a few weeks, he refuses to take pain killers (“Have to think clearly”) and is in fine mental shape for his debate on the existence of God. But can this avowed atheist resist his young Christian challenger when the world has lost its reason and his beliefs are in danger of being undermined by his own mortality?
Under Tyler Marchant’s helming, Rayner (“The Invention of Love”) makes splendid work of this complex figure, enjoying his quick wit and sharp tongue while giving us harrowing glimpses of the anger he feels when his body betrays him. Speaking of his near-death after an operation, he finds “terrible humor” in the fact that his life, the life of a great mind, was saved by a brain-damaged dwarf.
Being relatively young and just coming into his intellectual own (he had yet to write “The Screwtape Letters” or even “The Chronicles of Narnia”), the character of Lewis (Mark H. Dold) can’t make a claim to the same complexity. As Dold (“Absurd Person Singular”) dutifully plays him, the young philosopher/author lacks all humor and is actually a bit of a bore about his rigidly held beliefs in the teachings of Christianity.
In the face of such certainty, what could a wise old man like Freud do but laugh, as he does often at the supercilious upstart who satirized him in print as “a vain, ignorant old man.”
But while Freud seems to have the best lines, Lewis has a wonderful mind and the strength to stand on his convictions. Once Freud recognizes that, the two launch into invigorating exchanges on the nature of good and evil and the eternal question of why a Christian God would allow the one to suffer and perish under the other.
As Germain would have it, perhaps a bit too neatly, neither man is shaken to the core by the other’s arguments, but both are stirred and ultimately changed by their encounter. If Lewis doesn’t lose his faith, he does take a lesson in humanity, if not humility. If Freud can’t be converted to the teachings of the church, he’s intrigued by Lewis’ shrewd analysis of his failings. And because the philosophical questions they raise have yet to be resolved, this thrilling conversation could go on forever.