A meeting of the minds

American Stage brings us Dalí and Freud in the surreally and certifiably entertaining Hysteria.

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click to enlarge MENAGE A MINDFUCK: From left, Sigmund Freud (Michael Edwards) and Salvador Dalí (Justin Campbell) meet their psychological match in the beguiling Jessica (Stacy Fischer). - Michael and Suz Karchmer
Michael and Suz Karchmer
MENAGE A MINDFUCK: From left, Sigmund Freud (Michael Edwards) and Salvador Dalí (Justin Campbell) meet their psychological match in the beguiling Jessica (Stacy Fischer).

Terry Johnson’s Hysteria starts like a silly farce, ends like a philosophical meditation, and contains elements of both throughout, with an emphasis on the latter. Showing us Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dalí, Freud’s doctor Abraham Yahuda, and a mysterious woman named Jessica, the comedy ignores all neat distinctions and mixes festiveness with morbidity, absurdity with tragedy, and high art with low. This mélange shouldn’t work; but Johnson manages to beat the odds, and brings us a spectacle well worth seeing. Winningly directed by Todd Olson, Hysteria is funny, sad, superficial, profound, scatterbrained and very wise. I’ve never witnessed anything else quite like it.

The year is 1938, the place Freud’s study in London. Freud, suffering from a painful mouth cancer, is in England as a refugee from the Nazis, and expecting a session with his friend and doctor, Yahuda. Instead, he’s visited by an intense and duplicitous young woman who claims to need immediate treatment and also finds reason to lose most of her clothes. Soon she’s hiding in a closet while Freud interacts with Yehuda and an unusual visitor, the surrealist Salvador Dalí.

Yehuda is incensed with Freud after having read a draft of Moses and Monotheism, and Dalí, in London to pay homage to Freud, is intrigued with the naked girl just behind the door. There follow hijinks that might have been lifted from Feydeau, with Freud trying to convince Yehuda that the young woman’s clothes are his daughter’s, and Dalí running in and out of the closet with more and more injuries sustained as he tries to embrace the uncooperative nude.

But just when we’re convinced that author Johnson has nothing more to do with these famous names than to use them in some vaudeville stunts, another plot begins to emerge, and this one is utterly serious. The young woman finally persuades Freud to allow her to reconstruct one of his analyses from the 1890s, featuring an agoraphobic woman with a hysterical paralysis. As the analysis proceeds, we learn more and more about a certain Rebecca S., her troubled relationship with her father, and the diagnosis that Freud would later recant. The farcical elements in the play don’t entirely disappear — Dalí’s vanity continues to be a source of laughter as the story proceeds — but now Johnson is after something important, an issue of real substance in the debate about Freud’s legacy.

As the stakes rise ever higher, the production itself begins to change, and we’re suddenly facing a hallucination out of one of Dalí’s dream-paintings. The play ends on a poignant note, though one with surprises of its own. Johnson, it turns out, is not just a farceur but a penseur.

The acting in this unpredictable thought-romp is universally excellent. As Freud, Michael Edwards is a sympathetic, earnest presence, heroically facing his own death, worried about his relatives still on the Continent, and doing his best with the mercurial woman who always seems one metamorphosis ahead of him. As that woman, Stacy Fischer is fiercely resolute and still, somehow, vulnerable: one always senses that behind her demands is a terrible desperation. Playing Dalí, Justin Campbell is wonderfully likable: he combines a colossal egotism with the confused look of a naïf, and it’s this childishness ultimately that defines and pardons him. Pete Clapsis as Dr. Yahuda is just about perfect: stolid, ironic, weary, good-natured. Scott Cooper’s set of Freud’s study is attractive and persuasive, featuring the famous couch, Persian rugs, a Picasso and African masks on the walls, and a collection of classic phalluses useful as artwork and weapons. Adrin Erra Puente’s costumes include Dalí’s amusingly overlong, loud jacket and Freud’s sober, vested suit, and John R. Malinowski’s lighting gets a nice work-out in the play’s closing minutes. You could hardly ask for a better-made production.

Johnson gets his Freud right. It’s all there: the cancer, the attack on religion, the derogation of Jung, the distress upon hearing the ominous news of Kristallnacht. It’s this combination of fact and farce that makes the play seem so unpromising at first and then turns it into a triumph. Opposites, it turns out, can live together quite nicely when conjoined by a real artist, and Hysteria is, of all things, intellectually satisfying — and this at the same time that it’s zany and entertaining. I heartily recommend it.

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