John Nassivera's "Phallacies" is a meritorious comedy of ideas, worthy of the energies of the New Playwrights' Theatre, which premiered the work Wednesday evening. It would be even more meritorious if Tom Stoppard hadn't already written "Travesties."
"Phallacies," "Travesties" -- the resemblance isn't just in the titles. Stoppard's play revolved around Henry Carr, an insignificant British consular official, whose life momentarily brushed up against that of Lenin, James Joyce and the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara. All of them happened to find themselves in Zurich in 1917, but if those three celebrated gentlemen were preparing to make intellectual history, Carr was merely an accidental witness to the ferment, and the sense of the times soared over his head. (Some of the scenes even took place inside his muddled head.) Full of puns and parody, "Travesties" was the equivalent of an intellectual pillow fight.
Nassivera's play is set in Zurich and Vienna -- not to mention inside its hero's confused mind -- circa 1915. That hero, an insignificant, but perfectly likable, minor writer named Zeno Cosini, wants only to quit smoking. To that end, he seeks psychiatric help first from a certain Carl Jung, then from a certain Sigmund Freud, finally from both of them concurrently. Jung and Freud, however, are not getting along. Freud insists on the importance of infantile sexuality as the key to our neuroses. Jung is developing notions of the collective unconscious. In short, a major split in the history of psychoanalysis is shaping up rather heatedly. As Zeno himself observes, "psychological history was being made and I was in the middle of it, smoking like a Turk."
Following Stoppard's lead, Nassivera has written a three-ring circus -- well, two rings, at least -- and put an engaging nobody dead center. Like Indian clubs, the ideas fly back and forth under Zeno's bushy mustache, and the puns spin about him like so many dinner plates on wobbly rods. As the two analysts come up with increasingly divergent explanations for Zeno's weedy habit (Jung: "You're in love with the Virgin Mary"; Freud: "You're in love with your mother."), the play indulges in some reasonably alert mockery of psychiatry and the lengths it will go to to cover an inch or two of ground.
In the end, Zeno, of course, will find his own cure, although he still appreciates the roller-coaster ride he's taken on the couch. "They showed me my little weakness was of epic proportions," he concludes, with prideful irony. Nassivera suggests, however, that the growing offstage rumbles of World War I constitute a more proper definition of "madness."
The New Playwrights' production, directed by Fred Zirm, juggles time and place, dream and reality, with a goodly measure of verve. Not all the acting is as crisp as the staging, but the way Eric Zengota plays Zeno -- which is not unlike a baggy-pants comic who has just stepped down from the silent screen -- the character has a great deal of charm. Zengota's a sad sack with sorrowful eyes, who's always having "one last cigarette." But the underdog has his fickle fits of rebelliousness, too. And surely a daisy or two inhabits his soul.
For all its lively, literate virtues, though, "Phallacies" is largely imitative. (It may well be the best Tom Stoppard play written by someone other than Tom Stoppard that I have ever seen.) But even in these acts of imitation, Nassivera reveals some real gifts. It's not fruitless to anticipate what will result when he puts them to work in a play that he can truly call his own.
PHALLACIES. By John Nassivera. Directed by Fred Zirm; sets, Wally Coberg; costumes, Liz Bass; lighting, Jim Albert Hobbs. With Eric Zengota, Nick Olcott, T.G. Finkbinder, Lynnie Raybuck, Jim Fyfe, Hank Jackelen, Susan Cassidy. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Jan. 31.