Thursday, December 23, 2010

Theater reviews: Bracing ' Freud,' endearing 'Goldie'

Dennis Creaghan and Chris Oden in Freud’s Last Session.‭
(‬Photo by Alicia Donelan‭)

By Hap Erstein

With Freud’s Last Session,‭ ‬playwright Mark St.‭ ‬Germain follows a simple formula for success‭ ‬--‭ ‬put two compelling characters with differing viewpoints onstage,‭ ‬then stay out of their way and let them speak.

In this case,‭ ‬the characters are two towering thinkers of the‭ ‬20th century.‭ ‬There is Sigmund Freud,‭ ‬the father of psychoanalysis and a staunch atheist,‭ ‬and C.S.‭ ‬Lewis,‭ ‬a fervent convert to Christianity who would later become renowned as a religious philosopher and famous for writing such allegorical works as the‭ ‬Chronicles of Narnia series.

There is no evidence that these two ever really met,‭ ‬but St.‭ ‬Germain takes his inspiration from a book by Dr.‭ ‬Armand Nicholi,‭ ‬The Question of God,‭ ‬who suggested that such a meeting of the minds would have been fascinating.‭ ‬And indeed,‭ ‬St.‭ ‬Germain has Freud‭ ‬--‭ ‬suffering from oral cancer and contemplating suicide‭ ‬--‭ ‬summon Lewis to his London consulting rooms for a combustible conversation about the existence of a higher being,‭ ‬as well as the nature of good and evil,‭ ‬the purpose of sex and the very meaning of life.

Yes,‭ ‬it is heady stuff,‭ ‬but St.‭ ‬Germain frames the actual words of these two men in an entertaining fashion,‭ ‬leavened with humor that keeps matters from becoming dry.‭ ‬And the play‭ ‬--‭ ‬which continues off-Broadway after five months‭ ‬--‭ ‬is produced locally in its Southeastern premiere by Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬a company that prides itself on offering‭ “‬theater to think about.‭”

Director William Hayes puts the emphasis of this gem-like production on the words,‭ ‬moving his actors around the stage just enough to avoid the action-challenged play from feeling static.‭ ‬He is fortunate to have a pair of first-rate actors,‭ ‬Dennis Creaghan‭ (‬last seen at Dramaworks as the junk shop proprietor in American Buffalo‭) ‬and Chris Oden‭ (‬Werner Heisenberg in a similar play of factual supposition,‭ ‬Copenhagen‭)‬,‭ ‬as Freud and Lewis respectively.

Creaghan again demonstrates that he is one of South Florida’s most versatile performers,‭ ‬a chameleon disappearing behind Freud’s snowy beard and Viennese accent.‭ ‬Oden is a worthy foil,‭ ‬in awe of Freud yet drawn to attacking his nihilistic view of the world with respect and a bit of sadness.‭ ‬Together,‭ ‬they pick apart each other’s arguments with surgical precision.

Freud’s Last Session runs only‭ ‬70‭ ‬minutes,‭ ‬but they are densely packed with ideas,‭ ‬served up by a pair of actors who make the time spent with these two historical figures bracingly cerebral.

FREUD’S LAST SESSION,‭ ‬Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬322‭ ‬Banyan Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬6.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$47.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬514-4042.

‭ * * *

Deborah L.‭ ‬Sherman and Erin Joy Schmidt
in Goldie,‭ ‬Max‭ & ‬Milk.‭
(‬Photo by Ken Jacques‭)

Speaking of characters with opposing viewpoints,‭ ‬consider what happens when Maxine,‭ ‬an unemployed lesbian from Brooklyn who has given birth to a baby girl by artificial insemination,‭ ‬meets Goldie,‭ ‬a judgmental Orthodox Jewish lactation consultant.

The sparks fly in Karen Hartman’s world premiere comedy,‭ ‬Goldie,‭ ‬Max‭ & ‬Milk,‭ ‬at Florida Stage,‭ ‬even though it is not hard to predict that the two women will rub off a bit on each other,‭ ‬teach one another a few important life lessons and,‭ ‬after some tidily resolved crises,‭ ‬reach a truce of understanding and respect.

Yes,‭ ‬Hartman’s play is sitcom-convenient,‭ ‬but this decidedly offbeat look at alternative family values still manages to win us over with its humanity and its heart-on-the-sleeve argument for tolerance.

As the play begins,‭ ‬Max is down in the dumps.‭ ‬Her apartment has fallen into disrepair,‭ ‬her longtime lover Lisa has left her in a sudden fit of heterosexuality and Max has no prospects of landing a job.‭ ‬But she cradles in her arms her gorgeous new daughter,‭ ‬tiny Lakshmi Rose,‭ ‬named for the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.‭ ‬If only there were milk flowing in her breasts so she could nurse her baby.

Enter Goldie,‭ ‬sent by the hospital to help matters,‭ ‬which she does,‭ ‬even though she opposes Max’s sexual orientation.‭ ‬So they spar with some clever,‭ ‬pointed exchanges,‭ ‬but Hartman soon runs out of comic barbs.‭ ‬What gives the play its follow-up punch is the arrival of Goldie’s teenage daughter,‭ ‬Shayna Brucha,‭ ‬who comes laden with a noodle casserole and a dilemma of her own.‭ ‬You see,‭ ‬she is a closeted lesbian,‭ ‬who worries if she tells her mother she will be ostracized from the family.

Wait,‭ ‬there’s more.‭ ‬As the first act ends,‭ ‬Lisa rashly kidnaps little Lakshmi to gain Max’s attention.‭ ‬Not much is made of this intermission cliffhanger other than turning us off to Lisa.

Goldie,‭ ‬Max‭ & ‬Milk is directed by Margaret M.‭ ‬Ledford of Promethean Theatre,‭ ‬making her Florida Stage debut.‭ ‬To her credit,‭ ‬she reins in the play’s potential for caricature,‭ ‬getting an earnest,‭ ‬dimensional performance from Deborah L.‭ ‬Sherman as Goldie,‭ ‬full of practical wisdom as well as a religious code that knows no compromise.‭ ‬She is a vivid presence,‭ ‬but the production belongs to Erin Joy Schmidt‭ (‬Max‭)‬,‭ ‬endearingly clueless on child-rearing and perpetually exhausted,‭ ‬but with a natural maternal instinct.

Sarah Lord is a petite wise-beyond-her-years dynamo as Shayna,‭ ‬Carla Harting adds some nuance to the play’s villainess Lisa and David Hemphill lends solid support as the odd-man-out,‭ ‬Lisa’s brother Mike,‭ ‬the sperm donor dad who moonlights as a drug dealer.

Florida Stage gives further evidence that it is learning how to use its new home at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬thanks to Timothy R.‭ ‬Mackabee’s scenic design,‭ ‬which has far more set pieces than would ever have fit in the Manalapan playhouse.‭ ‬Goldie,‭ ‬Max‭ & ‬Milk is lighter than much of the company’s usual fare.‭ ‬Maybe the company wanted to ease up for the holidays as it continues to search for an audience in West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬the play weaves some substance in between its strokes of warm humor.

GOLDIE,‭ ‬MAX‭ & ‬MILK,‭ ‬Florida Stage at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬16.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$47-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬585-3433‭ ‬or‭ (‬800‭) ‬514-3837.

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