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Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis meet. Discuss

“If the whole universe had no meaning,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, “we should never have found out that it had no meaning.” Pithy observations like that — rooted in logical argument — have made the writer one Christian whom many agnostics and atheists accept and enjoy.

“Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis,” Sigmund Freud once wrote. “Mankind will surmount this neurotic phase, just as so many children grow out of their similar neurosis.” A pithy observation like that is one reason many people are stimulated by Freud’s writing, even if they regard his psychology as dated, oversexualized nonsense.

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The timeless, rich and exquisitely crafted arguments made by these singular men — and the give and take between such opposing positions — infuse “Freud’s Last Session,” the hit Off-Broadway, two-character play by Mark St. Germain that opens Jan. 16 at the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Judd Hirsch plays Freud and Tom Cavanagh is Lewis.

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“It really is point-counterpoint,” said Cavanagh. “It’s kind of a rarity to have belief explained to you by means of rational argument.”

A drama, of course, needs a setting and chronological context. Thus St. Germain imagined a fictional meeting between the men on the eve of Word War II. In the 90-minute, single-set play, Freud is living in London, having been forced to leave Austria as the Nazis gained power.

Concerned about his daughter, Anna, he’s also suffering from oral cancer, which would kill him in September 1939. In the play, Freud has decided to invite Lewis, a writer he admires and whose faith interests him intellectually, down from Oxford for a chat. The conversation is largely imagined but based on the men’s writings.

In 1939, Lewis was not the mature figure familiar from dramas like “Shadowlands” but a relatively recent convert to Christianity and a 40-ish Oxford don. His great works had yet to be written.

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Up to a point, the play is evenhanded, with both men unleashing their zingers on each other, for the pleasure of the audience.

Yet the biographical situations of the characters could not be more different. Lewis was approaching the prime of his career; Freud was approaching his demise. Whatever your intellectual certitude about how people behave in life, death remains an abyss. That unknown — getting closer and closer for Freud — creates the main tension in the drama.

“Freud,” Hirsch said, “is raging against God because he is railing against death.”

“Freud is at the apex of his frustration with Lewis,” said Cavanagh. “He is talking with an incredibly intelligent man who has crossed over and become a believer — as opposed to having being indoctrinated in his belief, following it without much thought.”

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“If these guys were sitting on a beach in Florida,” Hirsch said in a separate interview, “the conversation would not be the same. Freud had been thrown out of Austria by the Nazis and was living in a place that might get bombed at any moment. And he’s dying. He knows these are the last moments of his life. If the audience does not get that, I’ve failed, whatever comes out in terms of Freud’s opinion or philosophy.”

“Freud’s Last Session,” which was suggested by the book “The Question of God” by Armand M. Nicholi Jr., has not failed anywhere in America. It had a run of 775 regular performances, or about two years, Off-Broadway, most recently at the New World Stages.

In March, the show’s lead producer, Carolyn Rossi Copeland, took the actors playing Freud and Lewis, Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold, to Chicago, where “Freud’s Last Session” played the Mercury Theatre for about eight months, while another cast took over in New York. Production costs are modest, and the piece more than recouped its cost in both New York and Chicago.

In New York, Copeland said, Freud was the main draw initially. The play first caught hold among “therapists from the Upper West Side” — the celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer reportedly attended eight times — and then built a broader following. That was perhaps unsurprising: of the men, Freud is the more powerful brand. Lewis is now better known for “The Chronicles of Narnia” than his explicitly theological works of nonfiction, such as “Mere Christianity.”

Chicago, Copeland said, was far more Lewis’ town at first.

The Mercury Theatre, a small venue on Chicago’s North Side, had previously hosted a long run of Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” a successful touring show created and performed by Max McLean, which had drawn heavily from an audience, including a lot of church groups, interested in the writings of Lewis on Christianity.

“Freud’s Last Session” had access to that mailing list and initially built its Chicago audience from those who knew Lewis better than Freud. Slowly, though, that changed. After the original cast returned to New York, the replacement Chicago cast consisted of Coby Goss, who played Lewis, and Mike Nussbaum, who played Freud.

Nussbaum, 89 and the dean of Chicago actors, comes with a formidable local following. Critics came back to re-review the play.

Cavanagh and Hirsch, who will play these roles at the roughly 500-seat Broad Stage in Los Angeles (Copland is again the lead producer, along with the Broad Stage), are new to the piece, which Copeland says will have an initial four-week run, with a good possibility for an extension. They are working with the original director, Tyler Marchant, but neither actor has seen the prior casts.

Hirsch, 77, famous for his work on such TV shows as “Taxi,” “Dear John” and “Numb3rs,” is perhaps less well known for the Tony Awards he won for “I’m Not Rappaport” and “Conversations With My Father.” He also was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1980 movie “Ordinary People.”

He has, he says, “been aching to get back to the stage in a role of the right age.”

The Canadian-born Cavanagh, who is 49 and who also has done a good deal of stage work, is best known for playing the title role in the NBC series “Ed,” which followed a shaken-up New York lawyer who goes back to his small hometown in Ohio and which aired from 2000 to 2004.

Both men say they are determined to make the play more than an intellectual debate between the men. Hirsch says his Freud can crack up an audience.

“No matter how dangerous, sad or dramatic something seems to be, I always try and find the humor,” he said. “I played Willy Loman one time, and I said he’s funny.”

“It’s really amazing to see this play re-created every time by different actors,” Copeland said.

“Judd just inherently brings the comedy and really embodies Freud. And Tom already knew a lot about Lewis; he has a strong Catholic background, and he’d read much of his work, and he really understands it,” she said.

With Hirsch now attached, there would seem to be an argument for moving the play to Broadway — a move that Copeland said was on her mind, depending on how things go in Santa Monica.

Cavanagh says he has been trying to focus on Lewis the man, as distinct from Lewis the quote-machine. “The ideas will get out there,” he said. “They’re in the lines. The question, really, is this: ‘Are you putting up these ideas or are these characters having an actual meeting?’ Judd and I are defiantly making an attempt at the latter.”

Jones is the theater critic of the Chicago Tribune.

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