Mark St. Germain's two-character play, Freud's Last Session, ran for two years Off-Broadway and has made the rounds of regional theaters, winning prize after prize. The Arden's admirable production, directed by Ian Merrill Peakes, adds yet another debate drama about religion to the ever-lengthening roster so far this season.
(Since the six shows I listed for my review of The Runner Stumbles on Oct. 22, we can add two more.)
The debaters here are illustrious: Sigmund Freud (David Howey) and C.S. Lewis (Todd Scofield). The subject is profound: the existence or nonexistence of God. The moment is, well, momentous: the day England entered World War II.
And if the meeting between the psychoanalyst and the young writer (who would go on to write, among other books, The Chronicles of Narnia) is imaginary, the superb set (designed by David P. Gordon) looks thoroughly authentic. Anyone who has been to the Freud House in London knows how thrilling it is to see the famous couch, covered as it was, and as it is at the Arden, by a Persian rug. The desktop, like the curio cabinets, is filled with the tiny, ancient figurines Freud collected, and the phone rings often enough to give us a glimpse into Freud as tyrannical father to his already eminent daughter Anna.
Freud is the more dramatic character - both by reputation and by situation, since he is dying and tormented by the pain of mouth cancer. Howey's performance powerfully conveys a man who is suffering and who is trying to understand the point of suffering. Lewis believes that "suffering is God's way to perfect us."
Lewis, having parodied Freud in a recent book, seems, oddly, both unabashed by this embarrassment and unintimidated by meeting a man considered one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Having recently found God through revelation, he argues against Freud's assertion "I have found a truth you can't face: the end is the end."
It's all interesting, but not quite interesting enough; Scofield talks too slowly and deliberately. It sounds like a script rather than a heated conversation. And St. Germain's dialogue makes it all diligently clear; I found myself thinking that these two guys were, surely, much, much smarter than this.