Freudian Tip

Penis envy may be ludicrous. The analyst's couch may be passe. Still, there's no eradicating the imprint Sigmund Freud's theories of personality have left on our collective psyche in the last 100 years. Through his writing and research, Freud popularized dream interpretation, recognized infant sexuality, and acknowledged the wounds we carry with us from childhood into adulthood. He even proposed a cure for those wounds -- psychoanalysis -- effected by a careful balance of talking about one's experiences, free association, and remembering the past. At his most innovative, the doctor illuminated some of the mysteries of the unconscious and provided us with tools to alleviate suffering. Not surprisingly, such brilliance inspired controversy.

In Vienna in 1896, Freud presented a paper based on years of analyzing middle-class women diagnosed as hysterics. Adult neurosis, he announced, was almost always caused by an incident of childhood sexual abuse. Incredulous, his colleagues rejected such a theory; Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a renowned specialist in sexual psychopathology, called it "a scientific fairy tale." Eventually Freud also discarded the notion. As he wrote to Dr. Wilhelm Fliess in 1897, "I am tormented by grave doubts about my theory of neuroses." Freud came to believe that his patients who remembered sexual abuse inflicted on them as children were not recalling actual abusive events, but rather were reporting forbidden fantasies they'd had of being raped or molested. This particular idea went on to influence the development of psychotherapy.

The staggering implications of Freud's reassessment form the basis for Terry Johnson's astutely written and cleverly structured dramatic farce, Hysteria, now on-stage at the Pope Theatre Company in Manalapan. (Hysteria won London's Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 1993. Those Brits -- they like their humor heady.) The Pope's riveting production proves as funny as a Marx Brothers movie, and as mind-bending as an acid trip.

Compressing historical events that take place over the course of a year and a half into a single evening near the end of Freud's life, Johnson sets his play in London, to where the analyst and most of his family have fled in 1938 to escape the Nazi invasion of Vienna. In Hysteria, the playwright combines a real-life visit that artist Salvador Dali paid to Freud's London home, the publication of Freud's contentious treatise on Judaism (Moses and Monotheism), and news of Kristallnacht, Germany's infamous night of rampage against Jews in November 1938. He adds to the mix the fictitious arrival of a psychology student named Jessica. Juggling outrageous characterizations, a deft handling of psychological jargon, and the dramatic unfolding of Jessica's past through journal entries and therapy sessions on Freud's couch, Johnson examines crucial events and ideas that have shaped life in the Twentieth Century: surrealism, sexual politics, the power of the unconscious, the Holocaust.

Director J. Barry Lewis never once drops the ball in this reconstruction-deconstruction of history. He keeps the ideas and emotions coming at full speed, not only by eliciting fresh and expertly timed performances from all of his actors, but also by highlighting the play's emphasis on dreams and imagination through visual juxtapositions. For instance, at one point during a manic scene of door-slamming, hiding, and spying, Freud finds himself wearing a cloth around his head in classic toothache style, a red vinyl raincoat, and a boot on his hand, while clutching a painting by Picasso; he could easily be posing for a surrealist portrait. Lewis's exuberant staging integrates everything into a seamless whole: Jon Gottlieb's gripping sound design, Jim Fulton's searing lighting, Suzette Pare's playful costumes, and Richard Crowell's painterly set, which, at crucial moments, breaks open to reveal a terrifying psychological landscape.

Jack Axelrod flawlessly depicts Freud as a cantankerous yet compassionate genius, agonizing even during his last days over the elusiveness of memory, the tenuous possibility of curing people, and the nature of professional and personal responsibility. Louis Tyrrell gives a sublime comic performance as an egomaniacal yet childlike Dali. Harvey Phillips anchors the ensemble in his role as the comparatively sane Abraham Yahuda, a conflation of Freud's real-life personal physician Max Schur and the historical Abraham Yahuda, a Jewish scholar living in London at beginning of World War II. Jessica K. Peterson wraps herself around the role of Jessica, one of the best parts written for a woman in a contemporary play. Peterson burns up the stage with rage and intelligence.

From its first startling image of an anguished Freud to its final shattering thunderclap, the Pope's magnificent production of Hysteria will grab your heart and rattle your mind. Memory? Reality? Imagination? Dream? I'll leave it up to you to interpret. Just don't miss it.

Sigmund may have inspired controversy, but Simon inspires hyperbole. Variously described as the funniest, the wealthiest, or the most glibly commercial playwright in the U.S., Neil Simon can certainly stake a claim as one of the most prolific, with more than two dozen shows to his name since 1960, from comedies (1965's The Odd Couple) to musicals (1966's Sweet Charity) to comedy-dramas (1971's The Prisoner of Second Avenue). Never reluctant to tap his life experiences for stage material (for screen material, too, in movies such as The Goodbye Girl and Chapter Two), Simon reached an autobiographical pinnacle with his Eighties portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young man trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, the Tony Award-winning Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. In 1991's Lost in Yonkers, the playwright tackled family life with less sentimentality than he had brought to his previous work, and his efforts were rewarded with yet another Tony, plus a Pulitzer Prize.

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