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.
Simon owes at least part of his ability to churn out plays -- short on dramatic complexity but crammed with gags -- to his early career training. Along with such lunatic funny men as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Larry Gelbart (Gelbart created the television version of M*A*S*H), Simon cut his comedy teeth writing for Sid Caesar's zany TV revue Your Show of Shows in the early Fifties. Simon's most recent Broadway hit, 1993's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, pays affectionate and uproarious tribute to those professional roots.
On-stage through this weekend at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, Laughter employs the same cloying device Simon has milked to death in past plays: Narrator Lucas (a thinly veiled portrait of a youthful Simon, played by fresh-faced John Plumpis) acts as Greek chorus, providing the audience with a running commentary and information the playwright doesn't know how else to get across. Simon's narrative laziness is forgiven, however, because his piquant depiction of a comedy-writing team proves so damned on the mark.
Throughout television's history, the writers' room has been portrayed as a collaborative sweatbox. Think of Rob, Buddy, and Sally's desperation on the Dick Van Dyke Show as they tried to please their boss, television host Alan Brady (played by Reiner, who also wrote, produced, and directed the Dick Van Dyke Show). Take a look at a recent New Yorker profile of Roseanne, which describes how a stressed-out revolving turnstile of writers grudgingly vie for quip approval from the show's star. Laughter re-creates the original pressure cooker, where, as one of the writers attests, "We'll humiliate and denigrate anything and anyone for a laugh."
At the helm of the team stands Max Prince (played with deranged passion by Ron Orbach, whose father Manfred currently headlines across town at the Off Broadway Theatre in King of the Kosher Grocers). Stoked to his gills on Scotch and tranquilizers, Prince (based on Sid Caesar) is on the verge of his nineteenth nervous breakdown. NBC's corporate honchos not only want to cut back the 90-minute Max Prince Show to an hour, but they also want the writers to retract Prince's satirical claws and quit with the political references, including stabs at the communist-hunting senator Joe McCarthy A all of which presumably will allow the show to play in Peoria. And in order to balance the budget, one of the writers has to be let go. Who, out of the cast of crazies, will draw the short straw?
There's debonair head writer Val, played with wit and snap by Mal Z. Lawrence (if anything, the wickedly funny Lawrence is underused in this ensemble piece). There's Milt (the hysterical Ernie Sabella), the portly one-liner man, unfaithful to his wife but always good for a jest. There's Brian (Richard Ziman), the resident goy, who proves that Catholics are as funny as Jews. There's the smooth, smart, and cool-witted Kenny (Anthony Cummings). There's the socially conscious Carol, the only woman on the staff, played with wry perspective by Ronnie Farer. There's Ira (Ray DeMattis), the hypochondriac (DeMattis slayed the audience at the performance I attended with his simulation of a stroke). There's also Helen (Michelle Schumacher), the overeager secretary who couldn't tell a joke if her life depended upon it, and Lucas (Plumpis), whose facility with a wisecrack sharpens during his apprenticeship with his maniac pals.
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Of course what actually happens doesn't matter half as much as how this gang makes us laugh along the way. And make us laugh they do, from quick zingers to sidesplitting sketches, including a priceless account of a Max Prince episode in progress.
"All humor is based on hostility," says one of the scribes on-stage. "Humor is fed by conflict," writes Neil Simon in the program notes. But this corps of consummate pros proves that comedy's essence derives from timing. And every last one of these actors has that down to the millisecond. As Milt would say, bada-bada-boom.
Written by Terry Johnson; directed by J. Barry Lewis; with Jack Axelrod, Louis Tyrrell, Jessica K. Peterson, and Harvey Phillips. Through January 7. Call 407-585-3433 or see "Calendar" listings.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Written by Neil Simon; original production directed by Jerry Zaks; restaged by Lewis J. Stadlen; with Ron Orbach, Mal Z. Lawrence, Ernie Sabella, Anthony Cummings, Ray DeMattis, and John Plumpis. Through December 31. Call 763-2444 or see "Calendar" listings.