Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Freud on Cocaine (review)

 Spoilers ahoy! 

I do love a double entendre.  The play now playing at the Whitefire by Howard Skora has a good one.  Freud on Cocaine does indeed refer to the great scientist expounding about the benefits and (eventual) dangers of cocaine.  But he also does so while "on" quite copious amounts of the stuff.

Sounds funny?  Good, because it is!

The story, essentially told in flashback, focuses on a young Sigmund Freud (Jonathan Slavin) and two of the most important people in his life--his best friend Ernst (Aaron LaPlante), and his soon-to-be fiancee then wife Martha (Sara Marafino).  These three form the beating heart and core of the whole story.  Indeed they almost carry it, because their parts contain the drama as well as most of the multi-ranged humor.

Freud, brilliant but insecure and also desperate to make something of himself to he can marry the woman of his dreams, stumbles across some papers on the medical benefits of cocaine.  Ernst, who has lost this thumb in an accident, is in such pain he's addicted to both morphine and heroine, spending much of his time drifting off.  So, upon trying cocaine as a cure for his addiction, Ernst perks up, feeling full of energy again!  Freud believes he's found an area of expertise that might have great possibilities.  He feels that even stronger after trying some himself.  He introduces Martha to it, and she certainly thinks THIS is FANTASTIC! 

So Freud begins a journey into becoming "The Cocaine King of Austria."  With what he openly calls "happy powder" he stands up to his dour, disapproving mother-in-law (Sigute Miller), almost overcomes the overwhelming memories of a father who thought nothing of him, forges a wildly successful career as a consultant to drug companies manufacturing cocaine--with the help of an almost over-the-top executive (Barry Brisco)--coming in time to try and cure a female patient (Amy Smallman-Winston) of deep depression with said happy powder.

With hindsight, it was bound to start crashing.  In fact, it does in a harrowing manner.  Ernst it turns out was not cured of his addiction.  He dies, in front of Freud, who literally cannot bear the guilt.  But Ernst also returns as his own ghost/shadow of Freud's guilt who comes and keeps having invisible conversations.

I wish my words could easily portray just how dizzyingly fun this play is, especially given what is after all some extremely serious subject matter.  Yet after all do we not laugh in order not to cry?  Or, sometimes, to let ourselves go enough to allow a real weeping bout when we need it?  Anachronisms abound, often delightfully so.  While we laugh often and loudly we also feel the pain of these people who keep trying to win, to make it right, to learn, to escape and yet accept responsibility.  It makes for a deliriously dysfunctional mess, both comedy and tragedy in equal parts.  

To be honest, though, there was a character who kept wandering in and out of the scenes in a top hat.  She smiles, comments on the action, hints at who she is (Anna--Freud's last daughter, as yet unborn during this story), but to be brutally honest I could not figure out why she was there.  She is the only character with no arc, who almost never interacts with anyone else, and offers little by way of insight.  No offence to the actress (Kim Hopkins).  I just never noticed what this character was doing in the play--which is in pretty much every other way delightful!

Freud on Cocaine plays Saturdays at 8 p.m  until Nov. 4 2023 (dark Oct. 21) and Sunday at 2 p.m. Sept 10 ONLY at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423

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