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Talk about mind games

'Talking Cure' manages to turn Jung and Freud into a couple of bores.

April 16, 2004|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

If we only had a couch to take "The Talking Cure."

It's apropos not only because Christopher Hampton's play, now at the Mark Taper Forum, features founding figures of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and their sometime protege Sabina Spielrein.

A couch seat also suits Hampton's reverent, simplistic portrait of these pioneers, which comes off as the sort of studied, speechifying docudrama for which cable television was meant.

Whatever their quirks or blind spots, surely the fathers of psychoanalysis were at least interesting company. But somehow Hampton has managed to drain the fraught relationship of two fascinating men of all vital signs.

Intellectual vigor, competitive spark, anxiety of influence -- all are missing in action from this lifeless tintype.

The addition of Spielrein as a fulcrum between the heavyweights adds some color and variety to this dreary rivalry, certainly. As played by Abby Brammell, she's even an occasionally compelling figure, particularly in a first act dominated by her treatment under the solicitous Dr. Jung (Sam Robards).

"Perhaps she's the one ... the one you've been waiting for," says Jung's loyal wife, Emma (Sue Cremin), when he tells her about his latest patient and considers trying a new method proposed by Freud.

"Talk?" Sabina asks incredulously in her first session with Jung. "Yes. Just talk," Jung replies, leaning slightly forward over primly crossed legs, his pad at the ready.

This elementary Q&A approach, which Jung first mispronounces as "psych-analysis," gets lightning-quick results. Sabina immediately uncovers parental abuse as the source of her twitching, writhing hysterics.

When she later unveils the full extent of her condition, in a riveting confession of sexual shame, her harrowing breakthrough leaves Jung unable to contain his delight. "Thank you," he chirps.

There's another moment in which "The Talking Cure" evokes this inappropriate professional glee. As Jung eagerly soaks up the cigar-choked air around his idol Freud (Harris Yulin) in their reportedly rapt first conversation, Jung graphically describes the pleasure Sabina takes in bowel retention.

Freud replies, with the crusty graciousness of a great raconteur who can recognize someone else's good joke, "That's a nice story."

This unseemly relish for the juicy stuff finds its fullest expression in Otto Gross (Henri Lubatti), a whip-smart psychiatric upstart untouched by remorse or circumspection whom Freud hands over to Jung as a patient but who quickly seizes the reins of his sessions.

Gross' coke-fueled arias of amoral philosophizing to a nonplused Jung -- Gross believes, for instance, in sleeping with his own patients as a cure for the affliction of monogamy -- form the play's briskest, liveliest scenes. Indeed, they constitute its only sustained moments of infectious intellectual excitement, of sheer pugilistic pleasure in batting around ideas.

Unfortunately, after two bravura scenes, Gross never returns. He's fulfilled his plot function: to nudge the starchy Jung into bed with Sabina, now fully cured and studying to be a therapist herself.

After a date at the opera -- that proven aphrodisiac, "Die Walkure" -- their affair begins. Animus, meet anima.

Director Gordon Davidson can't breathe much life into this material, though he uses his Taper stage as resourcefully as he ever has. Peter Wexler's impressively versatile off-white hospital set handily changes locations with the help of a series of deft projections.

All this theatrical sleight of hand only labors to approximate cinematic editing. This is clearly the only economical way to put across the play's many brief, expositional scenes, particularly in a second act that limps to its reiterative conclusion. But with so many scenes clipped and inconsequential, no amount of transitional trickery can give the proceedings dramatic shape or forward momentum.

Apart from these structural problems, there are the show's character flaws. These start at the top with the ostensible protagonist, Jung -- a man whose seminal work delved into mythology and the paranormal and who took metaphysics and theology as seriously as Freud took sexual theory.

But in the watery solution that is "The Talking Cure," Jung starts out a fresh-faced, buttoned-down stiff -- and ends up a rather mopey, buttoned-down stiff. If this good doctor has a glimmer of imagination or originality, we're not privy to it. While the tall, blank Robards bears a striking resemblance to the original, he's as cold and mechanical as a Swiss watch.

Poor Freud isn't captured at his peak here. Yulin ambles, lumbers and suffers the indignities of fainting and incontinence with grace. And he does manage a flare-up of authentically quavering anger at Jung's betrayal.

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