Freud's Last Session (The Mercury Theater)
Mark St. Germain probably intended his two-person play to be an evenly matched battle of wits. The combatants are dyed-in-the-wool atheist Sigmund Freud and Christian apologist CS Lewis. St. Germain contrives to put the two men in the same room in September 1939, when Hitler was invading Poland and Freud was dying of oral cancer. On Freud's invitation, Lewis pops over from Oxford to pay an imaginary visit to the psychoanalyst's London office, where pretty soon the two are arguing over whether there's a God or if He's just a manifestation of our desire for a strong father figure.
Trouble is, the battle is not evenly matched. Freud the unbeliever wins handily, and not because he has the better argument. Lord knows the man could be as rigid and arbitrary in his convictions as any religious fundamentalist--the crucial difference being that the all-explanatory system Freud adhered to was one of his own creation. No, he wins handily here thanks entirely to the force of Mike Nussbaum's performance in the role.
When Tyler Marchant's staging of the play opened at the Mercury Theater earlier this spring, it opened with Martin Rayner and Mark Dold reprising their roles from the Off-Broadway production. When the show was extended, it was recast with locals Nussbaum and Coburn Goss. I didn't catch Rayner's take on Freud, but it's hard to imagine an interpretation more powerful than Nussbaum's.
Playing against his naturally gentle demeanor, he creates a Freud who's fierce and exacting, yet racked with pain from the cancer burning its way through his mouth. He's frequently seized by terrifying coughing fits that seem to both humble and enrage him. Watching him rail and suffer, it's impossible to sympathize with Goss's Lewis and his unconvincing and, under the circumstances, rather insensitive efforts to suggest a divine plan. How can we believe the universe is anything but cruel or indifferent when faced with the image of an old man dying in horrible pain as Nazis lay siege to his continent? Nussbaum makes Lewis look childish and smug by comparison. As St. Germain's Freud puts it, "I have two words for you: grow up!"
My review of Rock of Ages is in this week's Time Out Chicago.