1. Life & Culture

American Stage opens 'Hysteria,' a real head trip about Freud, Dalí and a mystery woman

Freud’s doctor and friend Abraham Yahuda (Peter Clapsis, left) joins Dalí (Justin Campbell) and Freud (Michael Edwards) in Hysteria.
Freud’s doctor and friend Abraham Yahuda (Peter Clapsis, left) joins Dalí (Justin Campbell) and Freud (Michael Edwards) in Hysteria.
Published Sep. 12, 2012


Times Correspondent

You get some odd reactions when you walk around town twirling your ridiculously long Salvador Dalí-style mustache.

"You know, it's really strange," Justin Campbell said. "Kids love it. Adults don't. The kids want to come running up to me and their parents yell 'No!' and hold them back."

Campbell has been in Dalí mode for a few months now, ever since he landed the role of the legendary surrealist in Hysteria: Or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis, an acclaimed but seldom-produced farce that opens at American Stage this weekend.

You've probably see Campbell's work before. He was at American Stage a few months back in A Steady Rain, and he played Sgt. Carter in the Academy Award-winning film The Hurt Locker.

He also plays the husband in a ubiquitous TV commercial. He's the guy who's talking to his insurance company's customer service department in the middle of the night when his wife comes downstairs and accuses him of talking to a woman he's having an affair with.

Commercials pay the bills, but playing Dalí is just a bit more artistically fulfilling than playing "Man on phone with insurance company."

"He was a fascinating guy," Campbell said. "He had this outrageous persona that he invented partly to cover up his insecurities."

Hysteria revolves around a meeting between Dalí and Sigmund Freud. The play is almost purely fictional, but the meeting itself actually took place, about a year before Freud died.

"There is some record of what happened," Campbell said. "Salvador Dalí had always admired Sigmund Freud. He considered him the single greatest influence on his life and work, and he finally got to meet him. But it was at that meeting that Dalí realized the surrealist movement was over."

In the play, a third person, a young woman, comes on the scene. It's not clear, at least at first, who the woman is or why she's there. So while the play is essentially a farce, there's an element of suspense.

"The audience has been really divided," said Todd Olson, the director of Hysteria and the producing artistic director of American Stage. "Some buy into the farcical elements and think it's a laugh riot. Others barely laughed but they loved the mystery aspect."

Even though the show is just now opening at American Stage, Olson and the cast have had plenty of time to gauge audience reaction. In an unusual arrangement, the show is being co-produced with Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Massachusetts. It was produced there first; then the entire cast, with all the costumes and the set, headed to St. Petersburg to start the American Stage run.

Although Hysteria garners almost unanimously fervent reviews — "hilarious" is perhaps the adjective that critics have most commonly used — it's an extreme technical challenge. Toward the play's end, the set itself becomes surrealistic. Clocks melt and telephones turn into lobsters.

Scenic designer Scott Cooper has handled the technical challenges masterfully, both Olson and Campbell said.

"The set turns into a Dalí painting,"' Campbell said. "It's an incredible challenge to make that happen. I think that's one reason this play isn't done more often."

Times correspondent Marty Clear can be reached at