At first blush, David Wohl seems the type one might expect to see sitting in a deli booth, schmoozing with the likes of Larry David over a corned beef sandwich in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
But once he dons a pair of small, round specs and launches into a convincing Austrian lilt, he becomes, unmistakably, Sigmund Freud.
That’s a good thing, though. The Brooklyn-born Wohl is in Pittsburgh through the end of March to portray the father of psychoanalysis in the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of the off-Broadway smash, “Freud’s Last Session.”
“The glasses are the most fun; I hope to let the glasses do the acting,” Wohl quipped while sitting outside the rehearsal set of the play, a replica of Freud’s London office.
“Freud’s Last Session,” opening at the O’Reilly Theater, Thursday, March 1, has been running in New York since 2010. It has received stellar reviews, and is reported to have attracted star-studded audiences, including Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Woody Allen and Christiane Amanpour. Sex therapist
Dr. Ruth Westheimer has seen it twice.
The play, written by Mark St. Germain, is based on the book “The Question of God,” by Armand M. Nicholi Jr., in which Nicholi imagines a meeting between Freud, a Jew who became an unabashed atheist, and author C.S. Lewis, an atheist who became a stanch Christian.
Set in Freud’s London office on Sept. 3, 1939 — the day Britain declared war on Germany — the play is a theological debate about the existence of God, a two-man discussion interrupted only by radio broadcasts about the war.
Performing a play centered on an ideological argument can be challenging, Wohl said.
“These guys are both iconic guys,” Wohl said. “On both ends of the spectrum, they were both brilliant in their world views. People will always be fascinated by Freud. People will always be fascinated by C.S. Lewis because of all the wonderful books he wrote for children (such as ‘The Chronicles of Narnia,’ and ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.’) The trick is to making the intellectual conversation come alive.”
Wohl and Jonathan Crombie, who will be playing Lewis, have found a connection between the two characters that does just that.
“You don’t want a discussion that will lay there like a lox mit out a shmear,” Wohl said. “You want it to be something that is alive and unfolding. It’s not so much a debate, but about where their common ground is. Otherwise, why would they be in the room together?”
Despite his atheism, Freud still very strongly identified as a Jew, Wohl said.
“His preoccupation with atheism and religion had nothing do with his cultural identification as a Jew,” he said. “It was ingrained in him.”
Born Sigmund Schlomo Freud in 1856 in what is now the Czech Republic, Freud was raised in a traditional Jewish home. By the time he reached adulthood, though, he had abandoned the faith of his childhood to become, as he once said, “a completely Godless Jew.” Nonetheless, because he was born a Jew, Freud knew he had to flee Vienna in 1938 to save his own life. In the play, his character recalls watching from his window before he left Austria as the Nazis burned his books.
Ted Pappas, producing artistic director of the Public, believes Pittsburgh audiences will be drawn into the play by the charisma of the characters, and the actors portraying them.
“Audiences love great plays, but they love nothing more than great performances,” Pappas said. “These are juicy parts.”
Pappas and Wohl have been friends since the early 1970s, when they were freshman at Northwestern University studying theater.
“I chose this play with David in mind,” Pappas said. “David is a great actor and a real theater animal. He belongs on the stage.”
The combination of Wohl, Crombie and director Mary Robinson, whom Pappas referred to as “one of the best directors in America,” promises to make “Freud’s Last Session” a play to remember.
But, Wohl warned, “Keep up, folks. If you don’t keep up, the thing will probably move on without you.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)