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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The Talking Cure

Sam Robards and Henri Lubatti
There is a world of difference between the play you're promised and the play you get.

You're promised an exploration of the relationships among Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the first patient of psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein. You're promised a look at the birth of this field of medicine, as Jung attempts to put Freud's theories into action when faced with an intelligent, troubled young woman. You're also promised an investigation of the relationship between the two psychoanalysts, as their mutual respect crumbles in the face of competing theories. The fact is, from a look at the advertising for Christopher Hampton's The Talking Cure, not to mention the program notes, you think you're in for an intelligent evening of theatre that focuses on the fascinating world of psychoanalysis.

And then, if you look a little closer at the program, you'll notice a photograph of the characters of Jung and Spielrein in bed together, and it slowly begins to dawn that the play you're getting isn't an intellectual exercise at all, but instead a routine guy-sleeps-with-someone-he-really-shouldn't-sleep-with-and-how-it-affects- his-life play.

It starts out promising enough, opening with Abby Brammell's Spielrein clearly in need of medical intervention. Her muscles involuntarily spasm and twitch, her speech is halting and punctuated by moans, and she has a history of violence. Sam Robards's Jung decides to try out psychoanalysis with her. He sits her in a chair, places himself in a seat behind her, and slowly starts to draw her out with questions about her childhood. Robards plays Jung with rather more enthusiasm than your standard detached psychoanalyst. When Jung encourages Spielrein to "Go on," he genuinely wants to hear the answers, and he ultimately succeeds in getting her to reveal her demons.

If you don't go into the piece knowing exactly what's troubling Spielrein, the therapy sessions are involving, as Jung tries to get to the bottom of Spielrein's mystery. But once he gets there, the play takes a sharp turn out of the world of psychotherapy and never really recovers the audience's interest.

Spielrein, while still a patient and certainly not yet cured, is immediately taken on as Jung's assistant. (Indeed, we never see any of Jung's subsequent attempts to help Spielrein get past her problems. Although we are told she continues with therapy, once she has spoken the root cause of her behavior, the play pretty much treats her as cured.) As Spielrein makes the transition from patient to doctor, she and Jung become attracted to each other over a mutual interest in the psychoanalytical implications in Wagner, and ultimately have an affair. The affair itself is disastrous - not only is Jung married at the time, but he knows enough about psychoanalysis to know one shouldn't sleep with one's patients, and he fears the fallout when his mentor, Freud, learns of his violation of this taboo.

The problem with the play is not that Jung and Spielrein have an affair (as they, apparently, truly did). The problem is that the affair, the characters, and everything that follows are all singularly passionless. Spielrein's first pass at Jung isn't born out of any genuine interest in him, but simply an interest in experiencing sex (as she believes it is necessary to know sex in order to better understand the sex drive). At one point, Jung describes Freud (played with an avuncular amiability by Harris Yulin) as a persuasive speaker - but this is after we have seen Jung and Freud in a lengthy mutual admiration session, in which there is no persuading going on at all. The play takes place on a white hospital set (projections later appear in order to create other backgrounds), but there's something antiseptic the permeates the whole process.

In a few first act scenes, some passion invades the proceedings in the form of patient (and psychiatrist) Otto Gross, played by Henri Lubatti. Gross is drug addicted, sexually over indulgent, as neurotic as hell. But he's also quick spoken, smart as a whip, and incendiary, when placed in Jung's cold, lifeless world. Lubatti makes a great effort to liven up this play - and he meets with a good deal of success when he's on stage - but his presence is all too brief and the flame he kindled is quickly snuffed.

There's an edge-of-your-seat bit at the end of the first act that comes out of nowhere (well, it comes out of 30 years in the future) which shows exactly how much heart-stopping drama there is in Spielrein's story. Unfortunately, it also serves to show, by comparison, how very little drama there is in The Talking Cure.

The Talking Cure continues at the Mark Taper Forum through May 23, 2004.

Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum - Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director - presents The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Gordon Davidson. Settings and Projected Images Designed by Peter Wexler; Costumes Designed by Durinda Wood; Lighting Designed by Paulie Jenkins; Sound Designed by Philip G. Allen; Original Music by Karl Fredrik Lundeberg; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA; Fight Director Steve Rankin; Wigs and Hair Designed by Carol F. Doran. Production Stage Manager Mary Michele Miner; Stage Manager David S. Franklin.

Abby Brammell - Sabina Spielrein
Sam Robards - Carl Gustav Jung
Sue Cremin - Emma Jung
Harris Yulin - Sigmund Freud
Henri Lubatti - Otto Gross
Taylor Daubens - Agathe Jung
Shiva Rose McDermott - Nurse
Libby West - Nurse
P.J. Marino - Orderly
John Hansen - Orderly
Bruce Katzman - S.S. Officer
Emily Rose Morris - Russian Girl/Gret Jung

Photo by Craig Schwartz

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