Mrs. Klein: An Absorbing, Disturbing Play About Professional Psychotherapists at Theatre Artists Studio in Paradise Valley

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The setup: Melanie Klein (1882-1960) was a psychiatric pioneer whose insights into the development of children's personalities, including the introduction of play therapy, supplemented the work of Sigmund Freud, changed analysis forever, and caused the British Psycho-Analytical Society to quarrel internally for decades like a bunch of babies in poopy diapers. The Society finally resolved the conflicts by deciding there are three separate schools of psychoanalysis. It just sounds a lot more fun to be crazy over there.

See also: Exceptional Equus Is a Triumph for Nearly Naked Theatre

Theatre Artists Studio is a great place to see challenging, sometimes critically acclaimed plays that were never quite popular enough to make it to Arizona on their ability to sell tickets or their authors' name recognition. It's a special niche of theater that's more likely to offend with literary excess than with language or subject matter -- but that's more than made up for by the not-for-profit troupe's ability to present under the auspices of the Actors' Equity Association Members Project Code, which permits the participation of union members: experienced professional actors and stage managers who, along with other talented members and community members who appreciate the opportunity to work with them, boost the quality of each show.

Artistic members of The Studio (as it's called for short) are able to nominate scripts for productions they'd particularly like to see realized, and many of them, as working artists, keep up on the reading of and about new contemporary plays in a way that makes me jealous. Roll all these qualities together and you get seasons that bring you everything from the trippy-but-trenchant whaaaaa? of Maple and Vine to the good old-fashioned comic mystery Accomplice. Currently, The Studio's featuring Mrs. Klein, a drama inspired by the life and work of that same famous psychotherapist we mentioned a while ago. If you think this blog post is wordy, wait until you see the play!

The execution: Seriously, though, the play and, in particular, this production are almost astonishingly good. British playwright Nicholas Wright's work rarely travels across the pond, but Mrs. Klein has the raw materials of such a gripping tour de force that Uta Hagen chose it for what would turn out to be her final Broadway role.

One of Wright's biggest contributions to the stage is a stable of strong, atypical female characters, and three quite different ones populate Mrs. Klein. (Okay, they're all psychotherapists, but they're quite different people.)

Though there's scenery a-plenty to chew, the title role has the most on her plate, and Barbara Acker (with whom I've worked with on a few shows and sometimes socialize), sensitively directed by Robyn Allen (The Whipping Man, Doubt), infuses Klein with genuine emotional and intellectual processes to forge that rare theatrical creation -- someone you can't stand, would probably never forgive, but somehow still feel kind of sorry and even grateful for.

The action (such as it is) of the play covers less than 24 hours in Klein's London home. This not only raises the temperature (literally as well as figuratively -- the symbolism of the dialogue, of which the symbolism-loving characters are often unaware, serves as a kind of in-joke between playwright and audience) but plays to one of Wright's strengths as a playwright: He makes stuff up about real historic figures, but it's stuff that, hey, might have actually happened -- who knows, really? By the time enough papers have been hidden, burned, and shredded, along with ambiguous one-sided phone conversations overheard, no one's sure of the details of even the fictional goings-on.

And while half of a sadly small Friday night audience might well have left at intermission because someone had eaten a bad sandwich, Mrs. Klein is the sort of play that could be a turn-off for people who prefer their drama to contain not just events but clearly followable ones. This script is not only mostly rehashing, analysis (not just the psycho- kind), argument, and emotional abuse (including self-abuse), it also goes back and forth like a tight tennis match.

But it does that in the best possible way. Having three old-fashioned Freudians in a room together, including Klein and her daughter, Dr. Melitta Schmideberg, who was controversially analyzed by her mother as a child, surpassed her academically (Klein left college at 19), disagreed with her professionally and publicly, and eventually declined to attend her funeral, creates a playground for manipulation and irony, a place where layers are peeled and built up so deftly that people fool themselves, realize it, note it with purely academic interest, and continue to fool themselves -- but they won't cut anyone else the same slack.

The irony comes from multiple sources. As you may know, psychiatrists must be analyzed themselves (or, at least, that used to be a required part of the training). Many of them need it badly, as they've had terrible trauma, the processing of which often is a part of their decision to become psychiatrists -- which is not necessarily a bad thing for their practice, but it can make them a pain in the ass to live with.

And, not unlike writers who need editors, analysts can be ill-equipped to understand their own emotional responses; they flail about like the average person in the face of stress. Melanie Klein's character, in particular, acknowledges she's in denial, assesses from time to time to what exact degree she is, and then, you know, denies the significance of her feelings, actions, remarks, and dreams. It makes for some laughs in this unusual play, if that's the sort of thing that makes you laugh.

The verdict: Now that we've thoroughly described this cup of tea, you get to decide whether it's yours. All three actresses will expertly lead you by the nose and stun you with their characters' pathetic and fascinating cruelty while entertaining you. I was not initially terribly interested in seeing Mrs. Klein, but I should have been, I'm extremely glad I didn't miss it because I enjoyed the crap out of it, and now I have a new-to-me playwright to follow.

Mrs. Klein continues through Sunday, November 10, at 4848 East Cactus Road in Scottsdale. Click here to order tickets, $10 to $20, or call 602-765-0120.

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