01/31/2013 06:50 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

About Freud's Last Session

This really is about this riveting play. (I'll get there) But this is also about NOT writing. And my father.

Dr. Freud would see the connections.

When writers I love cannot write, I say "write what you cannot bear to tell anyone." I've kind of forgotten that lately. I've been revising a book I've worked on for fifteen years. Sent it off. And I've completed another book I love. Sent it off -- once more, then twice, and again. I cannot bear to say how abandoned I feel without these works growing within me.

My father was a writer. He always told me when I could not write, "Sit down and bring me three pages with something you don't want to tell me."

When my father, Dore Schary, was very young, he was a playwright in New York. And when my brother and sister and I were kids, he told us stories about the years during the Depression when he and his friend, the playwright Moss Hart, spent time at WPA camps. These camps provided for city kids whose parents were struggling, their lives shattered by the Depression. My father and Moss organized shows with the kids, helping them find their talents, getting other young New York theatre people to come up, coach acting, dancing, singing; they'd bring musical instruments, put on shows and concerts, or sit around campfires as we've done since time began, telling stories, clapping hands, encouraging and comforting each other because times were rough and families were far away.

The "Up at Camp," stories became a kind of habit with some of the kids we played with in Brentwood when I was growing up. We all went to the same small school. In those days, there were no fences, no security systems (well, when you got famous enough to make people enraged, you'd have a watchman going around the grounds at night with a flashlight). But after school, all of us, a pack of about ten kids from show business families, would be on our own. While we'd swim in each other's pools, play tennis or croquet, visit ponies or dogs, we'd turn the action into theatre. Someone would have run away, been kidnapped, was about to be executed and needed a rescue force.

Many of our parents working in movies stilled dreamed of what was then considered the superior art: theatre; the play on the stage (and, if not in London, only then, in New York.)
But we could make plays easily -- no cameras or mikes necessary -- and on rare rainy days, we'd gather at our house, where we had a puppet theatre and a set of really nice marionettes.

Each afternoon, we joined together making stories we could be a part of. A story, which answered a question; "I wonder?"

Everyone took turns deciding what the play would be. We'd put crowns, hats, wings or cloaks from my father's silk pocket hankies, on the marionettes. Sometimes, we'd start a story about, say, a pirate and kidnapper, (kidnapping was a big subject -- like polio and the fear of invasions). Then, we'd find the pirate flag and hoist it on our boat we had in our pool. We'd become cowboys and Indians, pioneers. And we'd play nuns and priests (daring, since some of us were Jewish). We'd bless some. Others would confess sins and be banished.

When we played the scenes we invented together, we took them seriously. Like theatre, these daily events were lifelines to realities we'd never know, quests to find out how this would be? How that would feel?

Theatre is all about wonder. It's close enough, real enough for us to feel right there -- if it's excellent, one feels like they are part of the show and therefore, it's difficult to leave these people we've come to know so very well. The world outside is invasive. If we love the play, we want to remain there. Hear it all again.

Nothing was too remote, too horrifying or too fantastical to imagine, to play in the hidden stage on our ivy-colored hillsides. There was nothing we could not say.

Each story, somehow answered the question; "I wonder?" How would I be?"

So I am here in L.A. now, and the characters I've lived with are gone. The New York publishing scene is collapsing. Writers I love gather together to fill the void editors once played.
We hunt for new roads for our work to travel. We're finding them.

Those of us sulking are rather like carriage makers glaring at automobiles rattling by. (As well they might sulk. Would I had a horse and carriage to traverse empty Mulholland Drive -- faster than the 10.)

What to write? My father also told me, "When you can't find the idea, go to where ideas are."
So I went to see Freud's Last Session at the Broad Theatre. Mark St. Germain's riveting play is essentially a conversation about the Question of God between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. And there, in this play is the line: "What a person says is less important than what they cannot say."

Thinking about what they dare not to say, you feel C.S. Lewis considering what he might say, and see Dr. Freud frowning under his potent brow through his trove of comebacks, assertions and slams. Here you watch two men engage in passionate dialogue; jousting round the giant subject which has fueled man's fiercest battles from the beginning of time. I use the 'man' pronoun, but I mean the human creature, which is given to battle as a wary lion. Maybe only land comes up as an alternative attack issue. The thing we can fight over when even God won't do. But then, war over race and gender come out of concepts of God, and God's intent.
Wars are about one's own right to believe. They are also about the other people's rage and terror over what they think you believe, or do not believe.

In this exchange between the gangly C.S. Lewis, played by Tom Cavanagh, and the powerful Judd Hirsch as Freud, you feel the character Hirsch become as completely Freud as Daniel Day Lewis has become Lincoln. (Whenever I think of Freud, I will see Hirsch.)

I keep returning to the line: "What a person says is less important than what he cannot say." And my father's variation, "write about what you don't think you know how to say." Hirsch makes you feel Freud's anguish as the cancer in his throat makes any speech unbearable. I cringe. I writhe in my seat, clutch its arms, as strongly as I did at Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty. This is torture and action as real and big on this stage as those scenes on screen.

Live theatre, in fact, truly speaks that line of Dr. Freud's, for live theatre actors express passion, horrors and suspense, knowing all the emotion comes from them. We feel them breathe; we catch the howl that starts from the belly. They have to grab us. They have no background music, no striking camera angles. Yet, here Judd Hirsch's hot coal eyes target us, catch us, cut in sharp as any close up.

It is only theatre that does in fact do what one might imagine it cannot. In an analytic office as real and intimate as it surely was well over a century ago, Clifton Taylor, the light designer, has created sunlight from another time coming through the window onto the wide analytic couch, glowing on the wooden surfaces, the leather books, in Vienna. No big special effects team could have created a more subtle, effective atmosphere in the tone of the day.

Perhaps this is part of the magical bond that exists between live theatre and its audience. I don't feel that exchange in movies even though I love movies and see them all the time (and I'm more at ease with some TV series characters than with my family. This may be because the TV character doesn't know how snarky I can get.)

Theatre does do what movies cannot. Theatre has the immediate, minute by minute, challenge to lift us right away, each of us, onto the stage. The actors can feel the character of our listening. We can't pretend we don't love this, or that we do not get that.

Even a friendly audience, say at a preview, to celebrate, to project good wishes, must generate authentic energy. No moment of inattention will go unnoticed on stage. Listless appreciation is received as dislike. And if it comes within the performance you'll feel the slowdown in the energy up there.

This is why it is, then, equally wonderful to be watching a play, feel the audience's total engagement around you, as I did when I saw "Freud's Last Session."

We were right with these two men; our minds wrangled with them; Freud protested against the existence of God with the passion of one who cannot conceive of a more powerful force than his own mind and we felt C.S. Lewis, hoping (praying) that the God he believes in might find the humility nevertheless to step across the line, and alleviate Freud's stormy, terrible, choking.

The next day, in fact, when I went to my desk, light coming in from my window across my legal pad seemed to come from another time. And I had to remind myself I was not in Vienna, and that I could not put on a Persian collared coat and go to Dr. Freud's funeral, nor could I find out if C.S. Lewis was there, because when I read the play's program, I learned this encounter may never have taken place.

It is important that I do not ever know that. Because as I watched this new writer discuss his beliefs with this iconic figure, I knew that perhaps, if I watch enough strong theatre, I will know how to write to my father, and how to hear his voice come along through time and answer back.