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Psychotherapy taken to task in ‘The Couch’

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Peter Ruocco plays Carl Jung and Maggie Mason plays his mistress in 3Girls Theatre’s engaging production of “The Couch.”

It’s a good month for the furniture department: First, Cutting Ball’s brilliant “The Chairs.” Now, 3Girls Theatre’s welcome revival of San Francisco writer Lynne Kaufman’s award-winning play “The Couch.”

A fictionalized day in the life of psychotherapy pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; Jung’s wife, Emma; and his mistress, Toni, the show premiered at Magic Theatre in 1985.

Directed here by Amy Glazer with great panache, it features a stellar cast, right down to 10-year-old Hattie Rose Allen Bellino as Jung’s daughter, Katherine. It also boasts high-end production values, thanks to Alicia Griffiths’ excellent period set and Susannah Mason’s exquisite costumes.

Both funny and intriguing, “The Couch” imagines a fateful Sunday in 1911, during which an elderly Freud (an excitable, impassioned Louis Parnell) arrives at the Swiss home of his devoted younger colleague, a middle-aged Carl Jung (a pitch-perfect, comically self-absorbed portrayal by Peter Ruocco).

As it happens, on the very day of the visit — as Jung is nervously preparing for his important guest — his mistress (a wonderfully hysterical Maggie Mason) pops in, determined to persuade her much older lover to leave his wife and children for her.

The vulnerable, loose-cannon Toni sobs, shrieks and seduces. The two famous men face off in a battle of theories that is not just intellectual but also deeply personal to them both. All along, Jung’s betrayed and beleaguered wife remains the seemingly calm, but internally roiling, center of the storm whipped up by these three larger-than-life personalities.

Played by Courtney Walsh with great inner strength and dignity and an intelligence equal to her husband’s, Emma ultimately proves to be a force to be reckoned with.

Kaufman nimbly braids Freud’s and Jung’s theoretical conflicts (Jung breaks from his mentor over the existence of archetypes, and the meaning of incest, among other disagreements) with the more down-to-earth issue of the Jungs’ flawed marriage, showing how his womanizing affects his wife, his young daughter and even Freud.

“I am prey to temptation,” confesses a cluelessly unrepentant Jung. “I must have romance!” To the much more self-disciplined Freud, the younger man is endangering the nascent field of psychology itself by sleeping with a (former) patient. Tellingly, neither man is much concerned with Emma’s feelings.

“Freud demands absolute fidelity, and Carl is incapable of it,” Emma remarks dryly to her younger, sexier rival.
Kaufman’s triumphant, feminist ending is both hilarious and deeply satisfying.

The Couch

Presented by 3Girls Theatre

  • Where: Tides Theatre, 533 Sutter St., S.F.
  • When: 6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes March 31
  • Tickets: $30
  • Contact: (415) 275-0348, www.threegirlstheatre.org

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