Sigmund Freud considered religion a mass delusion, a sort of group neurosis ideally suited to obsessive types. C.S. Lewis was a literary intellectual who found ways of channeling his devout Christianity into even his nontheological writings, "The Chronicles of Narnia" most famously among them.
In "Freud's Last Session," the popular off-Broadway play now at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica starring Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines a meeting between these titans in Freud's London home just as the Second World War is erupting and the father of psychoanalysis is dying a painful death from oral cancer.
The drama, directed with an efficient hand by Tyler Marchant, is pedestrian. But there's something soothingly civilized about this tête-à-tête set in Freud's book-lined study (attractively designed by Brian Prather). All that's missing are the tea and crumpets.
Hirsch (the lovably dour actor best known for his avuncular role on the classic TV sitcom "Taxi") plays Freud with an Old World manner that is at once dignified and schleppy. An exile from Hitler's Europe, his Freud cannot resist the pleasures of analytical conversation even though the prosthesis in his mouth makes him bleed when he talks.
Cavanagh portrays Lewis, a whip-smart Oxford professor, with a self-delighted air. A dapper, wiry man, his Lewis is kind, generous and compassionate but also utterly infatuated with his quick-step mind. At any minute you half-expect him to italicize one of his discerning remarks with Gene Kelly dance moves.
The question before us isn't whether rationalism will succumb in the final hours to the consolations of faith. A physician by training, Freud was secular to his core, an empiricist beholden to the scientific method, no matter that his theories today are valued more for their resonant originality than for their verifiable truthfulness.
St. Germain uses this fictional opportunity to review the philosophical debate between believers and nonbelievers. Freud has summoned Lewis down from Oxford to understand the origins of his religious belief.
"I want to learn why a man of your intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie," Freud says in his characteristic no-nonsense style.
He'd like to get Lewis onto his couch, to see whether his "desire to seek God was a search for an ideal father figure." Lewis, in turn, wonders whether the roots of Freud's atheism have anything to do with his disappointment over his ineffectual father.
"The wish that God doesn't exist can be just as powerful as the belief he does," Lewis says, turning the tables on the man who has famously made a career of interpreting the unconscious motives of others.
Each tries to inject doubt into the other's belief system. Freud wants to know how a benevolent God could countenance such egregious human suffering as illness and war, subjects that are understandably weighing heavily on him now. Lewis questions the art objects on Freud's desk, sacred figures from the ancient world, "all sharing concepts of God. Right and wrong, good and evil."
Theology is swatted like a badminton birdie. Freud contends it would be ruinous to love one's neighbor as oneself. As for turning the other cheek, he asks, "Should Poland turn the other cheek to Hitler?"
Lewis has a retort for every seemingly unanswerable Freudian query. In fact, he often seems to have the upper hand, at least until he grows doctrinaire on learning of Freud's plan to end his life before the cancer does.
As expected, the men fight to a draw. Neither concedes an inch, though their humanity is enriched by an encounter in which death keeps making its presence known through air raid sirens and Freud's ghastly attacks of oral agony.
For "Freud's Last Session" to be a deeper play it would have to take a freer hand with the characters, exploring the textures of their inner lives rather than simply surveying their intellectual positions. St. Germain playfully illuminates some of the contradictions in their characters, but the piece sticks mostly to the surface, satisfying an audience's hunger for intellectual nourishment with easily digestible morsels from their writings.
Pulling down Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents" from the shelf upon returning home from the Broad, I was dazzled by Freud's brilliance in a way that I wasn't in the theater. This weekend I'm going to try to get to Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters." Supplemented in this way, "Freud's Last Session" moves out of its flyweight class.
'Freud's Last Session'
Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: Contact theater for schedule. Ends Feb. 10
Tickets: $45 to $137
Contact: http://www.thebroadstage.com or (310) 434-3200
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes