NEW YORK — When the play “Freud’s Last Session” opened in a Manhattan YMCA in 2010 it became an unlikely hit, but few could have predicted just how widely seen the session would become.
This fictional conversation between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud has since been seen in Atlanta, Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago — as well as Argentina and Sweden, among other places.
It goes next to Santa Monica with its most famous stars yet: Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh, who say they were lured by a moving and provocative piece.
“My hat’s off to the playwright,” says Hirsch, 77, probably best known for TV roles in “Taxi” and “Numb3rs.” “It could have been a really dull play.”
“It might still be with us in it,” replies Cavanagh.
Hirsch thinks about that.
“We could prove it,” he finally agrees, smiling.
Mark St. Germain’s play is set in 1939 with Europe on the brink of World War II. Lewis, a youthful Oxford professor and an atheist-turned-Christian, stops by the London home of the elderly and ailing world-renowned psychoanalyst Freud. For 90 minutes, they go head-to-head over God, love, sex and the meaning of life.
“It’s a made-up conversation between a couple of intellectuals,” admits Cavanagh, who has been on the TV series “Ed” and on Broadway in “Urinetown.” “But it sings.”
Adds Hirsch: “They both have faults — wonderful, human faults.”
Adding to the tension in the play is that the atheist Freud, suffering from cancer, will kill himself a few weeks later. He has invited Lewis, the author of “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” for something of a last-ditch attempt to disprove God’s existence.
“Everyone is either going to be on one side or the other. And so that involves a choice. These characters are expressing how they arrived at their particular choice,” says Cavanagh, 44, during a break as the two rehearse in New York before going West.
“Depending on how open your ears are and how much you want to hear, you’re either going to have your position calcified a little bit or perhaps it’ll be chipped into a little bit. I think both instances are interesting for an audience.”
The acting duo, who both live in New York, will be appearing in the play at the 499-seat Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center from Jan. 11 to Feb. 10.
The play marks the first time Cavanagh and the Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winner Hirsch have worked together. Cavanagh saw the play off-Broadway before it closed this summer, but Hirsch hadn’t seen a production before signing on, though he says he’s been lately asked to play Freud several times.
The youthful-looking Cavanagh threw himself into the project. “I researched like crazy, nonstop. Videos, books, articles — I just tore it upside-down,” he says.
“I came into the first day of rehearsal and they said, ‘You’re playing Lewis.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I even had the accent,” he jokes. “It just goes to show you — read the emails.”
This play may mark the first time they are collaborating, but their chemistry both onstage and off reveals a comfortable collegiality and a willingness to banter.
“This is the first of I’m sure many combinations,” says Cavanagh.
Hirsch agrees: “I expect to encounter Tom many, many times in this life.”