Historical fictions are tricky. On the one hand, using actual figures from history make it easier for an audience to invest in the characters — just about everyone has at least heard of, say, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein (both featured in Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapine Agile"). On the other, these are real people who led real lives, and so writers, directors, and actors have fewer liberties when it comes to putting words in their mouths and setting actions on their bodies.
I am in no way an expert on psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud or author CS Lewis; like most people, I know the broad strokes. With that general knowledge I found their portrayal in Mark St. Germain's "Freud's Last Session," which details a fictitious encounter between the two early 20th-century masters, smart, fascinating, and thought-provoking in its discussion about that biggest of Big Questions: does God exist?
Spoiler alert: you will probably not be convinced one way or another on the existence of a divine force by the end of the play. (That said, you can cast your vote as to whether Freud or Lewis won the debate on the chalkboard located in Geva's vestibule.) But you will get 90 minutes of two good actors, guided by director Skip Greer, hashing out the pros and cons on the likelihood of the divine. Simultaneously they reveal interesting details about the lives of the notable men they portray (from my brief bit of research, these all seem to be accurate), and remind audiences of the uncertainty of the world in the days leading up to World War II. Oh, and it's not all doom and gloom — there are some good digs and zingers thrown in as well.
St. Germain brings the two men together with a contrivance: Freud has invited Lewis to his home in London, where Freud had relocated after fleeing the Nazi occupation in Vienna. Lewis is initially confused as to the reason for his summoning, but Freud soon reveals — for reasons that become obvious although never explicitly stated — that he wants to pick the young author's brain about how Lewis, previously a staunch atheist, so unequivocally embraced the idea of God. The two then verbally spar, sometimes congenially, sometimes viciously, over everything from mommy issues to comedy, each accusing the other of being arrogant, naïve, or willfully blind.
The piece is literally just two men on stage talking for an hour and half (there is no intermission), but Greer's direction keeps things lively, as do the flawlessly executed audio cues that pop up throughout the show.
The cast features Kenneth Tigar, a familiar face at Geva, as Freud and Geva newbie Ron Menzel as Lewis. Lewis holds his own in the less-flashy role (although his accent seemed inconsistent to me), but this is unquestionably Tigar's show. I've seen him in both of his previous Geva productions ("The Price" and "On Golden Pond") and he's always good, always likable, but has a tendency to play so "big" that it can come across as shtick. His Freud is certainly animated, and that almost staccato accent is a bold approach, but this felt like his most restrained performance, in a good way. That said, he still displays remarkable range in the character, from some really beautiful quiet moments to some explosive fits of anger, building to an intense segment that was so effectively portrayed that I was physically squirming in my seat. It's Tigar's best work at Geva yet.
The lux-looking, detail-filled set by designer Robert Koharchik is a pleasure just to look at — I have no idea if it is an exact approximation of Freud's actual study, but it sure looks fantastic. And special commendations to lighting designer Derek Madonia, who emerges as the unlikely MVP in the last few moments of the show thanks to his thoughtful lighting of certain key set pieces. Walking out of the theater, I heard several people commenting on how fantastic the lighting choices were. That's a minor miracle in itself.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.