It's a phenomenal idea: A play, based on a meeting between Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud, that combines comedy with psychological intrigue. It's hard to see how it could miss.
But miss it does. Terry Johnson's Hysteria: Or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis is a mess. Even the generally superb acting and direction and phenomenal set and lighting design in the current production at American Stage cannot salvage it.
The most obvious problem is that Johnson doesn't blend the comedy and drama; he merely smashes them together. The comedic scenes are broad and often more silly than funny. The dramatic scenes are heavy and intense. There's no hint of humor in the drama and no hint of drama in the humor.
One moment there's a naked young woman in Freud's bathroom, and a flustered Freud is trying to hide her from a distinguished friend and explain the articles of women's undergarments scattered around the room. The next moment the woman is overcome with intense emotion as she graphically details horrific episodes of incestuous rape.
The comic stuff is pretty funny — reminiscent of the Marx Brothers at its best moments — and some of the dramatic scenes are disturbing. But Johnson switches back and forth frequently and randomly. When the drama seems to be reaching for a climactic moment, Johnson hits the brakes and gives us slapstick.
Perhaps the play's biggest disappointment is that the promise of meaningful conversation between Freud and Dalí never materializes. The meeting between Dalí and Freud actually happened, shortly before Freud's death. Not too much is known about that meeting, but it doesn't take much imagination to envision a fascinating conversation between an ultra-serious pioneer of psychology and an artist who became a pop culture icon by consciously trying to paint the subconscious.
But except for one short scene that feels like an afterthought, Hysteria gives us none of that. Dalí is portrayed here as a buffoon who spends much of the play running around in his underwear and trying to get a woman to let him draw her armpit, with which he has become obsessed.
At Sunday's matinee, about half the audience gave the play cursory applause, and half gave it a standing ovation. It's hard to argue with either. Despite the schizophrenic script, the direction by Todd Olson, the performances and the technical work are wonderful in their own right.
Justin Campbell, who played Sgt. Carter in the film The Hurt Locker, is unforgettably funny as the pompous but bumbling Dalí. Stacy Fischer is chilling in her harrowing role as a mysterious woman who intrudes on Freud in his final hours (and she's quite good in the comic scenes too), and Pete Clapsis does good work in a smaller role. Michael Edwards is adequate as Freud, but his accent appears and disappears with some regularity, and even when it appears it doesn't sound Austrian.
The design work is a more overtly essential element here than in most plays, and it's all phenomenal. Adrin Puente's costumes, especially Dalí's yellow striped suit, are wonderful, and John R. Malinowski's lighting design adds an appropriately ominous texture.
Scott Cooper's set — Freud's study and a bit of his garden — is exquisite. Property designer/set dresser Sarah Beals may have gone overboard with the phalluses that decorate every corner of Freud's study, but at show's end, when technical magic happens during a hallucinatory sequence — a clock melts before your eyes — it's hard to quibble with anything concerning the set and props.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.