"Mrs. Klein"

By Nicholas Wright
Directed by Rick Lombardo
At the New Repertory Theatre, Newton --- through April 12, 1998.


 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

 Author Nicholas Wright has worked as director of the Royal Court in London, presiding over numerous premieres,  and in the New Rep's savvy production his "Mrs. Klein" is a kind of textbook example of how to construct a  marketable serious play.  Wright begins with a well chosen subject: the life of Melanie Klein, one of the generation of  psychoanalysts that built a towering intellectual edifice on the foundation laid by Freud. Klein is not exactly a household name like Freud, but she is still in the psychology textbooks, a name to be reckoned with.   Victorian sentiment held that children were innocents fresh from heaven, their mothers the angel in the house -- except for a few unnatural monsters, of course.  Freud, and Klein after him, called the monster the Id, and said it lurked in each of us, hidden from our daylight consciousness.  Analysts observed the Id's actions in the symptoms, and in the dreams, of their disturbed patients: but also in themselves.  Every analyst -- except Papa Freud-- had an analyst, and together they explored the conflicts in the unconscious depths, exposing the monstrous infantile impulses to the light of reason and bringing them under interpretation and control: "Where Id was, there shall Ego be."  This process is inherently dramatic, and Klein's particular contribution to psychoanalytic theory was her close personal observation of the psyche's earliest, formative stage. She could claim, as her male fellow practitioners could not, direct experience as the mother half of the mother-child dyad.  She knew what it was to have her body taken over by an alien will, and her aggressive intellect imprisoned in domesticity. Psychoanalysis was for Mrs. Klein a leap into light and freedom: she found in Freud's methods a way to turn the tables on the two babies whose births threatened to turn her from a brilliant student into a drudging nonentity.  Klein made her children her first patients, their education the object of her scientific experimentation, their psyches the subject of her research in analysis.  Her ruthlessly "objective" case studies of her daughter Melitta and her son Hans, their identities lightly disguised behind pseudonyms, made her reputation, and won her a measure of respect and power among the small group of soul-scientists who were re-defining human nature.

Wright focuses on Mrs. Klein (Barbara Blossom) in London, one day in 1934.  Her son Hans, 27,  has fallen to his death while on holiday in the mountains, and Klein has summoned one of the graduate students at the Psychoanalytic Institute to proofread the galleys of her new book while she travels to attend her son's burial.  Klein's daughter Melitta (Dee Nelson) is an analyst herself, married to one of her mother's major psychoanalytic rivals and and serving him as an eager participant in the academic warfare carried on in the professional journals. Melitta has applied the analytic methods her mother taught her to her brother Hans' words and actions on his last day, and concluded that his death was no accident, but suicide.  Mother's fault. Paula (Susanne Nitter), the student, is caught in the middle, partly dreading the coming battle, partly -- like the audience-- eager to see so much ferocious intelligence in action, the two warriors who know themselves and each other so well battling to determine who will be the one who defines their relationship in terms so loaded that it is better to be bad than wrong.

The New Rep piece has the perfect set, props, sound, costumes, hair styles.  It has the pace of a page turner of a detective story where every phrase, gesture, and object is a clue in a matter of life and death.  Director Rick Lombardo winds the circumstances tight, then lets his actresses rip.  What wonderful meaty roles these three actresses have, and how wonderfully they go at them!  It wasn't so long ago that I saw a really fine production of "Mrs. Klein" at Shakespeare & Company, and I remember Wright's somewhat creaky "whodunit" plotting very well  -- yet the script, and the acting, prove full of fresh revelations in this staging. Melanie Klein's genius comes across at the New Rep as almost a force of nature.  Yes, she has willed her own genius, tuned into it, rode it towards success over the bodies of the people who love her.  But anything less would have been an even greater betrayal, a betrayal of science and of intellect itself..  Barbara Blossom charges into the role with reckless abandon, determined to make the will and the genius visible and not at all worried about whether that looks pretty or sounds nice. Searching, grasping, sweeping away; commanding, revealing, rejecting; and scorning such trivial details as a consistent and plausible accent -- Blossom  is absolutely right.  What Mrs. Klein says is so extraordinary that how she pronounces it scarcely matters.

Dee Nelson has some trouble with her accent, too, but it is trouble of a different sort.   Melitta has lived in London for a long time, and Wright's lines for her seem shaped to be delivered as Nelson delivers them, with a British accent.  But Nelson sounds too good, too relaxed and modulated, too like the BBC.  And Nelson's wholesome beauty and natural grace aren't assets in this role. Poor Melitta has been under siege by her bulldog of a  mother all of her life, she has defenses piled on defenses to weigh her down and make her awkward.  We should see Melitta's wheels spin, and the cracks in her armor. But Nelson's playing with ease and authority has compensations, in that she gives her mother a better target.   Nelson also gives Susanne Nitter as Paula plenty of room to maneuver, allowing her to make her smallest gesture count.  When these two  are alone and free from the pressure of Klein's presence there is considerable warmth between the young women.  They are natural allies against Klein's Queen Bee as well as rivals for her favor and contenders for her crown.  Nelson and Nitter have a lovely scene together where they are trying to figure out what Mother Melanie could have done with an all-important letter, and at one point in their attempted burglary they collapse with helpless, childish, sisterly laughter.   Best of all is when all three women are at full pitch, thinking furiously and exploding with insight like shrapnel. Bravo to Rick Lombardo for egging them on.

When a play is the occasion for such wonderful acting, such an abundant display of courage and intelligence and sensitivity, it seems perverse to complain that Wright's script is a little too well crafted, a little too linear and logically plotted in the limiting manner of an Agatha Christie mystery.   Nevertheless, I'll say it.  I think Wright's play ties up Melanie Klein and her theories too neatly for its own good.  If the playwright weren't quite so determined to be clever at Mrs. Klein's expense,  he'd be more successful at helping us all learn to be wise.