In 1910, renowned composer and conductor Gustav Mahler met with Sigmund Freud to discuss his troubled relationship with his young wife, Alma. This became the basis for Otho Eskin’s play “Final Analysis,” now playing at the Signature Theatre. Eskin eagerly builds on the real life meeting of great minds by including several other famous figures (from Josef Stalin to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) who were also in Vienna around that time. The result is meant to be an exploration of the forces of love and hate in the world and what happens when conflicting worldviews clash. True, the characters rage, ache and exposit to one another in a variety of tones, but too often come off as rather lifeless and static.
The play often feels more like a philosophical exercise than a character-driven drama. Many interactions between two historical figures feel like listening to a formal debate. This would perhaps be acceptable if the points offered by the debaters were more insightful, but more often they feel like a Wikipedia summary of famous philosophies.
Uncomfortably enough, it is a young Adolf Hitler (an excellent Ryan Garbayo, whose character is never named and instead called the “Young Man”), the wild card, that is the joy to watch. Alternatively sycophantic and frightening, he creates the most interesting dynamics, and offers the only real glimpse into the oncoming vague destruction or toxic hatred and anti-Semitism his betters fear.
The play also half-heartedly tries to entwine gender dynamics into the relationship of love and corruption. The mostly sympathetic Wittgenstein (a tormented, stuttering Michael Satow) delivers an impassioned speech about the “evils” of women. While perhaps was meant to hint at his homosexuality rather than be taken literally, it goes by largely unchecked. The only woman to appear in the play, Alma Mahler (Elizabeth Jasicki), alternates between the archetypes of “oppressed housewife” and “shallow socialite,” both of which fail to resonate.
The characters are hyper-aware how high the stakes are for the future of the city, as well as their place in history. In almost every scene, someone spews some variation of “My Day is Coming!,” “Remember my name!” and “You’ll see! You’ll all see!” The play is generally bogged down by such heavy-handed writing; also, a waiter (Stephen Bradbury) serves as narrator, but his exposition is usually redundant rather than revelatory. Freud’s (Gannon McHale) psychoanalysis of Mahler (Ezra Barnes) is almost comically simplistic but apt (surprise: Alma is a replacement of the composer’s mother).
There are occasional moments that amuse or intrigue in “Final Analysis,” like when Stalin (a raging Tony NaumovskI) invites Hitler to a chess exercise (and a communist meeting) years before their game would become all too real. But more often characters are simply ideas, and these ideas, even when thought-provoking are not enough to create an engaging play.