Psycho Analysis

Hollywood is openly neurotic about its hatred of psychotherapy. Witness, most recently, Barbra Streisand's ridiculous Dr. Susan Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides who aggressively mischaracterizes the entire profession with each flick of her nails. In the theater, however, obnoxious psychotherapists tend to appear when a playwright is trying to make a story seem more profound than it really is, as in Peter Shaffer's Equus or Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein.

When no other creative maneuver suggests itself, playwrights use therapists to stand in for mind readers, nebulous antagonists, and scapegoats. In the worst-case scenarios, they become secondary characters whose job it is to root out the "truth" haunting the characters in the foreground. Sometimes they're turned into a kind of human litmus test for dramatic reality: We learn about a character based on what he or she reveals to the therapist, without regard for the authenticity of the doctor's role. Would a real therapist actually tell a patient he's mad as a hatter? No? Well, never mind, if it fits the design of the play. In the hands of novices, shrinks are too readily employed as cheap plot devices.

That's the case with Deceptions, a new play by screenwriter Paul Wheeler making its Florida premiere at the Area Stage Company in Miami Beach. Wheeler isn't a novice exactly. His TV writing credits include such prestigious BBC series as Poldark and Danger UXB. In addition to Ransom -- the 1977 Oliver Reed effort, not the Mel Gibson vehicle -- his movie scripts include A Breed Apart (1984) and Puppet on a Chain (1970). I'm willing to bet, though, that he's never actually availed himself of a psychotherapist. At any rate he certainly hasn't taken the time to figure out how they work. One ubiquitous sign of ignorance about the profession is that many writers -- who would certainly not consider writing about, say, an astrophysicist without first reading up on the profession -- assign to psychologists dialogue and motive that are quite simply preposterous.

In Deceptions, for example, the entire play revolves around the relationship of Adrian Wainwright, a twentysomething Londoner, and Julia Smythe, his new therapist. On the couch for the first time when we meet him, Adrian says he's come to Julia's office in hopes of finding out what is making him impotent. When Julia suggests the problem may be his mother, Adrian jumps up and announces he's cured. He begins to leave the room. Julia, appalled that Adrian has used only ten minutes of his hourlong session, encourages him to stay. She also feels that his problem may not be so simply diagnosed.

Adrian's story then takes several twists and turns: His father may or may not be a spy. His mother may or may not be depressed. And he may or may not have a problem with his girlfriend. What's material is that, at one point, Julia realizes that Adrian is perpetrating a hoax at her expense. In a fit of pique, she tells him he's insane. At the most superficial level, it's annoying that so much of the action that follows springs from Julia's anger at being fooled. From this time on, it's just a short leap to the point where Julia will become the scapegoat for Adrian's psychic ills. But by the time we find out what's going on -- why Adrian has not presented himself truthfully, how Julia has unknowingly affected Adrian's life through her association with someone else -- we're too astonished by the ridiculous plot developments to really care about Adrian's well-being.

From the get-go Adrian's dialogue is full of cheap gibes at the psychology profession, along the lines of, "Your job is to make sure that people come back next week and pay you 50 quid." Wheeler seems never to have considered that Julia would have to be a mediocre analyst indeed to take personally a patient's admission of fraud. Deceptions, however, is not trying to be a play about an inept psychotherapist. No, we're supposed to like Julia, at least enough to be able to stomach the notion that she and Adrian will become romantically involved by the second act.

I won't bore you with melodramatic shenanigans that transpire as Adrian begins writing a novel, then tries to convince Julia to marry him, all the while trying to decide whether or not he'll contact his estranged father. The central problem with Deceptions is not that it has too much on its plate (and I haven't even mentioned the suicide attempt). It's that in throwing Adrian and Julia together, Wheeler has not come up with a single kernel of emotional truth. As the catalyst for Adrian's self-knowledge, Julia doesn't change at all -- she's not supposed to. Adrian's dramatic journey from one kind of inarticulate anger to another, on the other hand, is downright vapid. Despite all the activity on stage, there's nothing really going on here.

At the Area Stage, where the production is directed by associate artistic director Maria Banda-Rodaz, the play fits nicely into the tiny stage area. But Lyle Baskin's handsome sets -- in which Julia's office can be transformed into Adrian's tiny bed-sitter by rotating the walls 180 degrees -- are the only things that really work. Banda-Rodaz's direction is adequate but uninspiring. There's no sense that the actors are thinking about their timing; their interaction turns lazy after the snappiness of the first act.

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