Freudian Slapstick 

What's so funny about Terry Johnson's play Hysteria?

Aurora is packaging its sixteenth season opener as a farce, but even calling British playwright Terry Johnson's Olivier Award-winning 1993 play Hysteria a comedy is a stretch. It uses tropes of the genre such as chase scenes, slamming doors, and compromising positions, and Salvador Dali appears as a farcical character throughout, but these are references to farce rather than the thing itself.

The play features an imagined meeting between Sigmund Freud and Dali, but Hysteria is a long way from Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile. It's possible to mistake it for a dark comedy, but really it's just a very dark play that has some comedy thrown in along with an awful lot of debate, deeply disturbing allegations, and almost surreal interludes.

Set in London in 1938, not long before Freud's death, Hysteria begins with Freud being given a shot from a doctor friend, which means all bets are off for the rest of the play. Anything or anyone may be imaginary, and consistency and causality are luxury items.

That's a convenient situation, because things don't always make sense. For instance, when Freud loses track of his own elaborate, implausible lies to explain the presence of someone he doesn't want there in the first place, it's unclear why he bothers to make excuses for her.

There's certainly some funny stuff in the script, such as Freud's suggestively vague (one might say Freudian) rumination on what on Earth he's supposed to do with this dangling thing, or Dali's misunderstanding of the stage directions when he's enlisted to play Freud in the re-creation of psychoanalyses past. But the most effective moments in Joy Carlin's staging are pure physical comedy: Freud being caught in an awfully suggestive position with an unconscious Dali, or the painter's utterly rapt expression when he enters to find the others in a tableau of surreal disarray.

Still, calling Hysteria a farce because it contains some pratfalls is like calling King Lear a comedy because there's a Fool in it. The initial wackiness is really a red herring, as we soon discover when the action stalls into a long recitation of a former patient's impossibly detailed transcript of her own sessions with Freud.

From that point on, the play becomes essentially a polemic against Freud, based on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's theory that the psychoanalytic pioneer abandoned his own theory that hysteria was caused by childhood sexual abuse because it implicated too many influential members of society. Johnson comes awfully close to accusing Freud of raping his patients anew by accusing them of having fantasized the abuse, essentially saying that they just think it happened because they wanted it to happen.

As the person who brings this stuff into the light, it's to Nancy Carlin's credit that her character comes off as driven but not shrill, because Johnson eventually stacks the deck so high that she could come on like an avenging Eumenide. Her mysterious woman who shows up at Freud's study (a cozy set by Richard C. Ortenblad Jr.) in the middle of the night has a hidden agenda that involves dredging up one of the doctor's old case histories.

When Carlin acts out the part of the patient in question, she jumps into it with both feet, so that it's impossible to see whether she's playing this woman or becoming her. It makes the scene more interesting to watch, but also adds to the confusion. If we saw her gradually losing herself in the role, it would be easier to understand why this is happening, but perhaps the point is that Freud doesn't know why any of this is happening. It's suggested that this may be a dream, but that could explain away anything that doesn't work.

Warren David Keith makes a believable, befuddled Freud, although for someone suffering from cancer of the jaw, he doesn't appear to even have a toothache. Charles Dean is even more stooped and weary as Yahuda, a doctor and all-purpose authority figure trying to convince Freud not to publish his manuscript Moses and Monotheism, which he feels will undermine Judaism precisely when it's being annihilated in Europe. Howard Swain is priceless as Dali, a wild-eyed, gesticulating archetype (to borrow a term from the ex-student Freud refers to as "the lunatic") of the Outrageous Foreigner.

Johnson tackles a bunch of hot-button topics in the play: epidemic sexual abuse, the veracity of recovered memories, assisted suicide, the sheer utility of religion and whether surrealism is any good as art, as well as invoking the Holocaust for good measure. Many of these debates are interesting in themselves, but they don't quite mesh with the broad comedy, and the surrealist freakout scene late in the play doesn't really go with anything. There's a lot to enjoy here and a lot to chew on, but it can be like chewing a mouthful of peanuts and gum.


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