As the title character in Nicholas Wright's "Mrs. Klein," the famed Uta Hagen is, in a sense, portraying two women.
As Melanie Klein, the pioneering Viennese-born child psychoanalyst, Hagen speaks in authoritarian tones, gestures forcefully and sits ramrod straight. In contrast, as Melanie Klein, a mother about to attend her son's funeral, she frequently lapses into sniveling tears and slumps in a chair as if fighting a losing battle against both gravity and her emotions.
Granted, both sides of Klein's egotistical personality are present in Nicholas Wright's disturbing psychological drama, at Washington's Kennedy Center as part of a limited, post-New York tour. But Hagen not only delineates them, she shows them warring inside her. And, she makes this inner battlefield, which could seem ludicrous, devastating instead.
Wright's script is so cold-bloodedly analytical, it doesn't readily win an audience's involvement. All three characters -- Klein; her eager protege, Paula; and Klein's daughter and professional rival, Melitta -- are psychoanalysts who constantly analyze absolutely everything. Not only dreams, but also a file cabinet and even a 1927 Sunbeam automobile all take their place on the couch. In this play, a cigar is never just a cigar.
Under William Carden's direction, however, the characters occasionally see the humor in this. "No hard feelings?" Melitta asks her mother at one point. "Not on a conscious level," Klein HTC answers cheerfully.
Set in London in 1934, the play takes the form of a mystery concerning the death of Klein's 27-year-old son, Hans, in a climbing accident. Klein's angry daughter, Melitta, insists his death was a suicide -- the only way Hans could separate himself from his mother, something Melitta herself has been unable to do.
Laila Robins' Melitta is in many ways the opposite of her mother. Just as her mother accuses her of exhibiting too much warmth with her patients, so Robins -- who starred in Center Stage's 1988 production of "The Lady from the Sea" -- shows us a daughter as demonstrative and emotional as her mother is cool and detached. One of Klein's most controversial practices was analyzing her own children, and in a startling scene, we see how easily she reverts to this pattern. No sooner does Klein claim she wants "a sensible, adult, mother-and-daughter friendship," than she pushes Melitta back into the role of patient by asking her to free-associate.
The third character, Paula, is initially an onlooker -- one of Klein's admirers, pleased to be asked to help with revisions on one of her books. Paula is a mousy character, but one who has her own desperate needs, and Amy Wright has some difficulty striking a balance between these characteristics. Paula may eventually supplant Melitta in her mother's affections, but Wright makes her seem a far lesser figure than either mother or daughter.
Then again, Hagen's Mrs. Klein is so dominant, everyone else -- indeed, every thing else -- on stage exists in relationship to her. Even Ray Recht's set design, devoid of walls and ceiling, comments on this monstrous creature -- a woman who has imprisoned herself, her children and now her protege in an emotional jail whose walls are invisible, but inescapable. It's a harrowing evening of theater.
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 20
Call: (800) 444-1324
Pub Date: 9/20/96