Thursday night we boarded a time machine which began on the ancient New Haven Railroad, the same cars I rode on decades before, still shuffling their way to Grand Central Station, laboring in the heavy July humidity and heat. The seats are worn thin with the years and most riders seem to be as well, with the exception of a sprinkling of younger people, their ears dangling with all the attendant cords from their iPods.
We were on our way to a New York premiere of a play that had been highly acclaimed when it was first performed at the Barrington Stage Company where it became the longest running play in the company’s history, Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain. Our unlikely attendance at the NY opening was prompted by our “new old friends,” Bill Hayes and his wife Sue Ellen Beryl, the Producing Artistic Director and Managing Director of Dramaworks, our favorite theatre in West Palm Beach. They will be producing the Florida premiere of the same play in December and had planned to see the NY production. It was over a recent dinner in Florida that they offered to secure tickets for us as well.
Here is the time machine portion of the story: The NY premiere was at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA which is right next door to where we lived at 33 West 63rd Street. Since we lived there forty years ago, the West Side has dramatically changed, losing much of its original character. Our little apartment house is surprisingly still standing, dwarfed by behemoth high-rises on all sides, making it stick out like a sore thumb in its old fashioned hardiness.
As we were to meet Bill and Sue Ellen at the theatre and later, by invitation, at a gathering after the performance, we booked a table at a nearby restaurant, Gabriel’s, to have a pre theatre dinner with a long-time friend from my high school days, Ed. This provided our “once a year” opportunity to look back over the last 50 years and as we always do, laugh at ourselves, and then fill in the news from the last year. While at the restaurant, Bill, Sue Ellen and their theatre party arrived and given there are scores of good restaurants in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, one had to wonder happenstance or serendipity?
It is always exciting to see an opening, to form one’s opinion before reviews can influence it. I suppose that is why we have subscription tickets to the preview productions at Dramaworks. We were lucky enough to see Happy Days at the Westport Country Playhouse before the reviews as well.
Freud’s Last Session has all the ingredients that make for an evening of great theatre, some eighty minutes without an intermission that seemed to pass in eight minutes. The play is set in Freud’s study in London, as WW II is breaking out, only weeks before his death, and portrays a fictitious meeting between Freud and C.S. Lewis, the renowned author and Christian apologist, where they discuss their polarized positions concerning the existence of God and the nature of man. It is a weighty discussion but much of the genius of the play is in the many moments of humor. Comedy brings out the best in serious drama.
Furthermore, the staging was brilliant. The audience felt it was indeed in Freud’s study, and that WW II was just underway. Brian Prather is the scenic designer and Mark Mariani the costume designer. Martin Rayner IS Freud and Mark H. Dold a credible C.S. Lewis. Tyler Marchant’s direction paces the production perfectly.
I could go into greater detail, but I confess, I have peeked at the New York Times review which appeared as I was writing this. It covers most of the facts, although the review is inexplicably lukewarm, criticizing the play for having a “lack of tension” or lack of “suspense.” There is plenty of tension, perhaps not in the traditional dramatic sense, but certainly of a cerebral nature. It is so well written, requiring thought and careful listening as well as an appreciation of the myriad subtleties, something the Times refers to as “clever talk.” It is more than that.
I love the quiet ending, Freud left alone in his study to contemplate his discussion with his now departed guest, his own mortality, and the carnage that is about to begin, wondering how one reconciles WW II with religion, listening to the very music C.S. Lewis had admonished him for turning off after the news broadcasts. To me this was a logical resolution to the play, a sign that these opposites had indeed struck a chord in one another, even though their respective positions, Freud’s atheism, and C.S. Lewis’ theism, were left uncompromised.
It will be fascinating to see how this production migrates to the stage in West Palm Beach.