HELLO, DALÍ! Salvador drops in to ask Sigmund what’s the nudes — er, news.
We're given the Freudian slip early on in Hysteria, or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis - and it comes with several other silky undergarments summarily discarded by a nubile visitor to the London study of the Father of Modern Psychoanalysis in Brit writer Terry Johnson's Olivier Award-winning 1992 comedy. A curious mash-up of What the Butler Saw and serious consideration of the über-shrink's flip-flopping theories of infantile sexuality, the play (presented by Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater through January 30) is of the same cloth as Tom Stoppard's Travesties and Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Like them, it builds an elaborate construct on a historical coincidence — in this case, the 1938 teatime call of Surrealist Salvador Dalí on the man who had unlocked the unconscious mind that became the painter's playground. But that meeting between exiled Austrian psychoanalyst and egotistical Catalan symbolist is just the spark. Johnson's play may be a dream; it may be a morphine-induced hallucination, complete with Dalí's melting clocks and a corpse that bursts from the closet. But it's no documentary.
The play begins with Freud's own physician, the straitlaced Abraham Yahuda, administering an injection to his friend, who is dying of a painful jaw cancer. Then all hell breaks loose. A soaking-wet young woman appears at the garden door and claims to be Freud's anima. (He thinks "the lunatic," Jung, has sent her.) Despite Freud's frumpy assertion that the locale is his study, "not some boulevard farce," the visitor is quickly and embarrassingly unclothed — which leads to the sort of frenzy typical of British slap-and-tickle, with the eminent psychoanalyst reduced to explanations that wouldn't fool a five-year-old, much less his bewildered fellow physician. All we need now is Salvador Dalí, who promptly shows up in all his self-dramatizing glory. Before long, despite being cloaked in a mantle of flamboyance, the artist is as near naked as the lady, and the closet door is slamming up a storm.
The surprise is that, amid the slapstick business of historical eminences reduced to abject silliness, the play retains not just a shard but a core of dignity. That's a tricky business, but director Daniel Gidron pulls it off for the Nora. Some (not all) of the farce is funny, but it takes a back seat to the doubts bubbling in the dying Freud's mind and questions about whether opportunism triggered his late-1890s reversal on whether unearthed perceptions of early sexual experience are memories or fantasies. In the Nora production, John Kuntz is given rope to make his Dalí a broad-comic construct, exaggerated in his posturing but deadpan in his conceit. The admirable Richard Snee, on the other hand, presents a Freud whose suffering seems genuine, whose interior struggle seem fraught, and whose descents into farce are therefore funnier.
Hysteria's significant visitor, however, is not Dalí but Jessica, the unhappy young woman who shows up in the middle of the night with a secret up her sleeve and an ax to grind. This attractive catalyst, intensely if also playfully portrayed by Stacy Fischer, turns out to be the daughter of one of Freud's seminal case studies. She believes Freud done Mom wrong, and her accusations, the crux of the play, are not spitballs. It is no small feat that such argument holds sway in a work in which Dalí wears polka-dotted underpants and the ghost of Joe Orton is evoked.