Theater Review (NYC): Three on a Couch by Carl Djerassi

Scientist-playwright Carl Djerassi’s fourth play premiered in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (under the title Ego) but has not received an American production until now. I’m delighted to report that Redshift Productions’ new Off Broadway staging does absolute justice to this intelligent, witty, and very funny concoction of noir, psychodrama, and clowning.

Djerassi is an emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the inventor of the birth control pill. He’s one of our culture’s premiere crossover figures between the worlds of art and science. I figured I’d mention all that, since it’s what one does. But he is also, quite independently of any other accomplishments, a playwright of the first order.

In Three on a Couch Stephen Marx, a famous novelist, fakes his own death in order to read the obituaries and critical appreciations he knows will follow. More than that, he is inspired by the real-life Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa to create “heteronyms,” alter egos to publish works in different styles for an audience meant not to know that the books all come from the same brain.

Sadly for Stephen, his original self cannot disappear without leaving a very large loose end: his wife, the sultry Miriam, who is at least Stephen’s match in force of personality and wit. The action takes place in the office of Dr. Theodore Hofmann, Stephen’s Freudian psychoanalyst. Played with antic clowning by the wonderful Brad Frazier, Theo is the glue that holds the plot together, and that’s critical because the plot is tricky and a little bit shaky in one or two places – but that hardly matters.

The pleasures of this longish one-act play begin immediately, with Theo attempting some very funny stylized acrobatics between his stool and his analysand’s couch, where Stephen lies apparently asleep. This business symbolically suggests the shrink’s attempts to “reach” his difficult patient, but it also opens up Theo’s character to our amused and sympathetic eyes: he is himself a very troubled man.

His role as confidante to Stephen and Miriam, initially professional and then personal, serves superficially to grease the gears of their story, yet on another level the therapist’s inner life is the very subject of the play. He’s on stage for almost all of the action, and his pursuit of his craft, with all his peccadilloes and insecurities, is the intellectual heart and soul of the work, at least in this production, carefully directed by Elena Araoz, stunningly lit by Justin Townsend, and luxuriously costumed by Chloe Chapin.

Theo is both an iconic shrink and a shrinking violet. He knows the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis as well as anyone, but is incapable – at least with Stephen – of maintaining objectivity, of keeping his cool. Between sessions and meetings with the husband and wife, he repeatedly tries to persuade his answering machine that he is master of his domain, yet all it does is stare back at him with its single blinking red eye. No analyst could possibly function in this way in real life, but the entire play is consistently absurd, both larger and smaller than life. By the end Theo does achieve a surprising sort of catharsis aided by (of all things) Susan Zeeman Rogers’s simple but clever set design. We cheer him rather like we cheer Georges in Act I of Sunday in the Park with George, a character Theo oddly resembles in some ways.

Mark Pinter plays Stephen with a pomposity so hearty it’s believable, in the over-agitated way a Seinfeld character seems “real”; Lori Funk is equally larger than life as the vengeful wife. Lush and noirish, Arielle Edwards and David Thomas’s music and sound dance us from scene to scene and state of mind to state of mind. The director has her cast play brilliantly with the fourth wall; the action is speckled with telling details like Theo bending into the stage light to read a letter, Miriam violently batting her eyelashes for much too long, husband and wife pounding out all the lines of a dramatic private scene while looking only at the audience. All told, it’s a full-throated sounding out of the possibilities of live theater.

Given the story’s psychological setting, I could quibble with how certain motivations are explained. But this play, and this production, hardly leave room for such quibbles. Both are superior in every way.

Three on a Couch runs through June 22 at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., NYC. For tickets visit the theater’s website or call (212) 691-1555.