07/22/2010 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: Freud's Last Session

It's rare to watch two intellectuals voraciously disagree on God, myth, humanity and morality with civility. In Freud's Last Session, now at the West Side's Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis engage in a battle of wits that is exciting and thought-provoking. And it makes for riveting theater.

It's Sept. 3, 1939; Hitler has invaded Poland and world war is imminent. Freud (Martin Rayner) invites C.S. Lewis (Mark H. Dold), an Oxford professor, to his home. Here, the atheist Jew and Christian apologist will wage their own war of ideas. Freud's quest for human understanding is profound. He rages against superstitions and orthodoxies of every stripe, committed to science and his secular saint, Charles Darwin.

The setting is Freud's study in London, recreated with the doctor's famed settee and beloved antiquities. The psychoanalyst, whose writings and theories remain both influential and controversial, is dying. Driven from Vienna by the Nazis, he is 83 and suffering from cancer of the jaw, an ironic affliction for a man who prides himself on speaking truth.

Lewis, who converted to theism at 33, takes comfort in his religious devotion. At the time of Session, he is 41, half Freud's age, and yet to write his most famous fictional works: The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters. Mark St. German's clever play is inspired by the book The Question of God, which wonders if the two ever met. The notion is pure speculation, but the play's arguments, rendered with eloquence and humor, are timeless.

The pleasure is in watching Freud, one of the most original and prominent thinkers of the 20th century, who rejects cosmic deities, battle Lewis, a sensitive man who believes he can rationally defend his faith. As they flex their intellectual muscle, parrying point/counterpoint, cracks in the amour appear. Yet their arguments remain strong; both are devout in their beliefs. They agree to disagree; they cannot convert the other, however sound their logic appears. What remains is mutual respect.

Under Tyler Marchant's fluid direction, their extraordinary debate comes alive. He's blessed with an excellent cast -- Rayner transforms himself into Freud with total credibility, expertly capturing his nuances of speech and manner, while Dold's Lewis, every inch the lively Oxford don, hides his vulnerabilities. There is great chemistry between the men, aided by St. Germain's crisp, carefully calibrated script. Freud's Last Session is a theatrical and intellectual delight.

The Moth GrandSLAM believes, as Freud did, that everyone has a story. In this case, it's told on stage. Since 1997, every Moth show boasts a specific theme, like "Compulsions" or "Call of the Wild," and five or six storytellers have 10-minutes to tell their true stories -- live and without notes. Directors work with performers, and everyone from celebrities to cops have participated. Funny, outrageous and touching, the stories are scored by three teams of audience-member judges, and a winner is announced at every SLAM. SLAM winners later face off in a Moth GrandSLAM. The next one, at the Highline Ballroom, is July 28 at 7:30. These aren't rants, essays or stand-up. It's good, old-fashioned, gripping storytelling. And if you miss a popular performance, catch the best efforts on the Moth podcasts.