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Sabina

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Psychological dramas don't come much more psychological than Willy Holtzman's Sabina. This curiously psychoanalytical - yet strikingly accessible - concoction of drama and comedy originally premiered at Primary Stages in 1996 and is now receiving a sedately sparkling revival at the company's new home at the 59E59 Theaters.

If you missed it the first time (as I did), you might not be easily convinced (as I wasn't) of its worth by a simple description of its plot. Knowing that it details the establishment and eventual dissolution of the professional and personal relationship of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung doesn't exactly suggest a heartfelt drama that you won't need a Masters degree in psychology to understand. And the importance to their story of a young Russian patient named Sabina Spielrein might be similarly hard to absorb for all but the most astute mental health historians.

Yet against the odds, Holtzman delivers a subtly provocative and even charmingly funny play, which has been richly realized in this production (directed with chic panache by Ethan McSweeny). Holtzman not only makes difficult concepts of both the medical and mental varieties understandable and even interesting, but also thoughtfully highlights the two relationships at the play's center, between Freud (Peter Strauss) and Jung (Victor Slezak) and Jung and Spielrein (Marin Ireland).

From nearly the beginning of the play, they're inextricably linked, with the on-the-rise Jung, a disciple of Freud's methodology, undertaking the task of unraveling the mysteries of Spielrein's mind. She's a psychotic hysteric, given to suicide attempts, bouts of catatonia, and other symptoms that leave the more traditional mental health community (represented in the play Ludwig Binswänger, played with appropriately clinical detachment by Adam Stein) scratching their heads.

Over the course of time, and with extensive treatments in word association and dream analysis (the "talking cure" he's working to develop), he manages to unlock the eloquent, artistic woman trapped inside. At first she validates Jung's professional life in the eyes of Freud - and Jung's personal life in his eyes, as well as her own - but eventually comes between them, even setting off on her own to begin her own career as a psychiatrist. The rift between the three only widens with time, as World War II (and the extermination of Jews across Europe) rears its ugly head.

Holtzman, however, is so in tune with the passion of his subjects that the play never seems like a history lesson, but instead a personal and detailed character study. By including artistic and musical images, Holtzman conjures up elegant dramatic vistas that underscore the characters' evolving (and sometimes degrading) states of mind. This manifests itself in two particular aspects of McSweeny's production: Batya MacAdam-Somer's soulful live violin playing of Michael Roth's dissonant, yet hypnotic music, and Mark Wendland's set, which combines features of a sterile observation room with blood-red curtains suggesting an ever-present pulse. Both these elements only further point up the clash between the real world and the world of the mind.

The performers, like Holtzman, are equally adept playing on both fields. Ireland is thoroughly convincing as the disturbed young Sabina who's capable of stirring up disturbances on her own, while Slezak's cold façade melts and refreezes as he pursues his treacherous and forbidden relationship with his subject. Strauss tends to lean a bit heavily on authoritative austerity in his portrayal of Freud, but it always works, and is particularly effective in the later scenes when the influential doctor is stripped of everything he once held dear. Stein makes a droll impression in his role, which is less inherently memorable than functional.

That's Holtzman's sole lapse; nearly everything else in Sabina works on multiple levels: References to the Brunnhilde and Wotan of Wagner's Ring cycle serve as analogues to Sabina's own troubled past and possible redemption; a throwaway joke about Freud's cigar smoking speaks volumes about the doctor's willingness to practice what he preaches; a lengthy coda to the evening, detailing what befell the three central figures in World War II, provides a bittersweet finale that quietly tells you more than you ever thought you'd learn (or want to learn) about the study of mental illness in the 20th century.

This helps the play stimulate both the mind and the heart in a way that few shows actually do. The dualities and contradictions on which Holtzman bases his script introduce and dissect concepts in a way both intensely personal and vividly theatrical. I can't guarantee you'll find anyone or anything to relate to in Sabina, but you're certain to gain a deeper intellectual understanding of - and emotional appreciation for - the complex and compelling issues it raises.

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Primary Stages
Sabina
Through February 27
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200