It’s a question I’ve often wondered myself: what if Sigmund Freud had chosen a life in the arts instead of pursuing psychoanalysis? Would the world be a different place, a better place, or maybe just a more . . . boring place?
Playwright Catherine Allen has created another playwright out of the famous Dr. Freud, but sadly this fanciful alternate universe makes about as much sense as a session of free association. In Dear Vienna, naïve and impassioned Dr. Freud, fresh from medical school, decides to become a playwright. Unfortunately for him, those who surround him (a wide array of dubious characters with flashy self-centered intentions) see Freud’s disastrous play as a means for advancing their own careers and social standings. In this “what if” approach to the events that led Sigmund Freud into the world of examining his fellow human beings and their inner drives and desires, the focus on plot and sense often takes a backseat to the witty attempts as social comedy and absurd subplots of the rest of the show.
At first glance, Dear Vienna looks to be a sumptuous journey back into aristocratic 1880’s Vienna. The set design, by Brandon Matthews, is gloriously detailed, an eclectic yet effective suggestion at ostentatious wealth and class. The stage is split to accommodate the play’s two settings: the drawing room of the legendary Countess Diamanthe LaBerge and the colorful atmosphere of Café G, a local meeting place for scientific and artistic minds. Complimented by Caroline Yacono’s subtle lighting and Vanessa Leuck’s intricate costumes, the overall impression of Dear Vienna is that of a play rich in both words and subtext. As soon as “the Young Stranger” enters the café at the show’s beginning, one would expect the zeal and focus to continue through to the conclusion. While the actors certainly do throw themselves into their roles with as much animation as they can muster, oftentimes the play itself tangles up in a confusion of purpose and leaves the audience struggling to comprehend.
So here’s what I figured out: Horst Kritsky, editor of the journal published with the Countess’s money, is desperate to keep the views of her suspected lover and known anti-Semite Sir Rudolph DerVanderhoff (also Kritsky’s ex-lover) out of the pages. Kritsky’s philosopher contributor, Gilbert Bruckholdt, is meanwhile convincing him to run nonsensical essays in the journal. Enter determined young playwright Sigmund Freud, who Kritsky learns is working on a play that would serve both his own needs and those of the journal. If he can convince the Countess to star in Freud’s (awful) play, that would effectively shut DerVanderhoff out and allow Kritsky to continue publishing his own views.
Just as it seems from the above description, Dr. Freud does not figure heavily into the plot as “Sigmund Freud” until the end of the play. For the majority of the show, Freud’s character could have been any young nameless European playwright. Except for some sparse, feeble jokes at Freud’s later practices and theories, we are not allowed a tangible insight into Freud’s purported younger years until the last scene, when it suddenly becomes painfully obvious that Freud’s true calling lies in diagnosing people’s personalities. The actions of these characters are what supposedly propel Freud into a new world of ideas and sexuality, which in turn “open his eyes to the true nature of humanity, and eventually to the kernel of psychoanalysis,” but he is not present for so much of the genuine wheelings-and-dealings between these people that it is hard to believe his career change could happen so quickly.
The actors do a superb job of flailing their characters around the stage, pouring vitality into them with hands as liberal as those who pour the Countess’s vials of absinthe. As the dramatic Countess, Judith Hawking is a nuanced joy to watch, bringing the energy level up to the ceiling every time she sweeps onstage. She charmingly mugs to the audience at every opportunity, which coincides with her character’s belief that she is always onstage, always ready for her adoring public. It is certainly difficult not to adore her, and so therefore practically every antic she engages in is both hilarious and delightful.
As young Sigmund Freud, Ross Beschler thankfully does not subscribe to the pompous or arrogant depictions of Freud in his later years, and chooses instead to bring him across as a tightly wound bundle of energy, so bursting with gusto for his play that it never even occurs to him that he knows nothing about playwriting. All he knows is that he must write.
It was an interesting idea to invent the catalysts for Freud’s dive into the psychoanalytic world as one of an artistic nature. However, the lack of a clear thread for Freud to follow, let alone the audience, dooms Dear Vienna to become lost in its own high comedy.
Vital Theatre Company