Rep Stage's 'Hysteria' Has Multiple Personalities

Jeff Baker and Bruce Nelson as Freud and Dali in farce with multiple personalities.
Jeff Baker and Bruce Nelson as Freud and Dali in farce with multiple personalities. (By Stan Barouh)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 16, 2009

The word "hysteria" can evoke hilarity, panic or madness; in the play "Hysteria," British dramatist Terry Johnson careens through all those definitions and more. At times it's a genuine riot -- after all, it features Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali and a naked woman popping in and out of a closet -- but it also soberly yanks the rug out from under its considerable intellectual fun.

Call it manic high jinks with a streak of clinical depression. It's a heyday for Freudians and Freud haters alike as the aged psychoanalyst gets subjected to a dreamy bout of door-slamming farce.

In the slow-starting but eventually zippy production at Rep Stage, Freud is played by Jeff Baker with an admirable sense of calm, even as the Viennese doctor is reduced to stammering explanations for the shenanigans in his study. Baker niftily plays straight man to the gags unfolding around him, and Johnson engineers some beauts.

For instance, when Dali enters, he discovers in Freud's study a bicycle covered with snails, plus Freud (his cancerous jaw wrapped, with the bandage tied atop his head in bunny ears) and another man toying with the hidden woman's slip. That's just a partial description of the oddities overtaking the scene, prompting Dali to gush with admiration, "It is true -- what Dali merely dreams, you live!"

Dali is the play's great entertainer: He is intensely, deliciously weird, a mustachioed dandy exalting himself in the third person. Bruce Nelson approaches the role with relish, savoring everything from suave seductions to startled shrieks and rendering it all in an absurd Spanish accent. (It's a play of European voices: Baker's Freud is thick with German, and Conrad Feininger's is heavy, too, as Freud's doctor, Abraham Yahuda.)

Marni Penning (acting with an American voice) is both antic and grave as Jessica, the woman who mysteriously arrives and strips, demanding an audience with the esteemed psychoanalyst. This is where the show turns serious, with Freud's early works on hysteria and childhood sexual trauma coming in for heavy rebuke.

To call this turn a killjoy misses the point of Johnson's unleashing aspects of the Freudian psyche upon the stage the way he does, yet the gambit still seems to misfire here. As Penning's accusatory character delivers a grim monologue undermining a Freudian diagnosis, director Steven Carpenter allows the intellectual circus to become hijacked by raw emotion. Farce and rampant jokes give way to something that feels too real, and the performance never fully recovers.

That's not to say it doesn't still have intriguing tricks up its sleeve, as Nelson's Dali continues to land punch lines and Klyph Stanford's clever set begins to resemble one of Dali's melting mindscapes. But sharp as Johnson's script is, the show (which suffers a few trance-like flat spots) is like a tantalizing patient: dead funny, then brutally woozy, and never quite fully pulling it together.

Hysteria, by Terry Johnson. Directed by Steven Carpenter. Lights, Dan Covey; costumes, Yvette Ryan; sound, Chas Marsh. With Elizabeth Simmons. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Through Nov. 1 at Rep Stage, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit

© 2009 The Washington Post Company