UNWIELDY DIALOGUE HINDERS `ENIGMA'.Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Theater Critic
Donald Sutherland, the most compellingly sphinxlike actor of his generation, is just the sort of offbeat, intelligent presence that you might hope to cast in a play called ``Enigma Variations.''
During his long, distinguished film career, this versatile Canadian-born actor has created many memorable characters whose guarded probity PROBITY. Justice, honesty. A man of probity is one who loves justice and honesty, and who dislikes the contrary. Wolff, Dr. de la Nat. Sec. 772. and low-key humor have lent them a mysterious, sometimes creepy, charisma. You never quite know what malevolence may be lurking behind Sutherland's sensitive, vaguely troubled stares and cockeyed grins.
Happily, some of that oddball ambivalence rubs off on Eric-Emmanuel Schimtt's teasingly diverting, if not especially suspenseful, psychological thriller, in which Sutherland portrays an imperious im·pe·ri·ous
1. Arrogantly domineering or overbearing. See Synonyms at dictatorial.
2. Urgent; pressing.
3. Obsolete Regal; imperial. , Nobel Prize-winning man of letters man of letters
n. pl. men of letters
A man who is devoted to literary or scholarly pursuits.
Noun 1. man of letters - a man devoted to literary or scholarly activities named Abel Znorko. Center Theatre Group's production, which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum The Mark Taper Forum is a small thrust stage with 745 seats at the Los Angeles Music Center built by Welton Beckett and Associates. It has presented innovative plays since 1967. The world premiere of Angels In America was produced here. , marks Sutherland's first stage outing in nearly 20 years, and both he and Jamey Sheridan generally acquit To set free, release or discharge as from an obligation, burden or accusation. To absolve one from an
obligation or a liability; or to legally certify the innocence of one charged with a crime.
acquit v. themselves well playing characters whose motives are never wholly credible.
A recluse filled with overweening contempt for the ``vulgar'' outside world, Znorko has lived for years on a barren private island in the Norwegian Sea. As the play begins, he recently has published his 21st book, ``The Unconfessed Love,'' an uncharacteristically romantic tome consisting of love letters between a man and an unnamed woman written during a period of some 15 years.
Is the book autobiography or fiction? A portrait of the artist as lovesick love·sick
1. So deeply affected by love as to be unable to act normally.
2. Exhibiting a lover's yearning.
love adolescent, or an elaborate literary hoax?
Those are among the questions that haunt Erik Larsen (Sheridan), an unprepossessing, middle-age man, when he shows up at Znorko's door for a scheduled interview, announcing himself as a local journalist. At first Znorko claims ignorance of the appointment, even firing a rifle at Larsen and accusing him of trespassing.
But as Znorko relents, the play quickly settles into a cat-and-mouse dynamic, with Larsen probing for personal insights and Znorko fending off his interlocutor in·ter·loc·u·tor
1. Someone who takes part in a conversation, often formally or officially.
2. The performer in a minstrel show who is placed midway between the end men and engages in banter with them. with patronizing smiles and slashing wit. Not that Larsen is without verbal ammunition of his own. ``I'm sure I'll have a better appreciation for how I feel about your books after you're dead,'' he tells Znorko dryly.
As it becomes obvious that at least one of these men has brought a concealed agenda to this cerebral jousting jousting
Medieval Western European mock battle between two horsemen who charged at each other with leveled lances in an attempt to unseat the other. It probably originated in France in the 11th century, superseding the mêlée, in which mock battles were held between match, the screws tighten and the tables turn - then turn again - in a manner that's a bit too reminiscent of ``Sleuth,'' Anthony Shaffer's '70s parlor thriller. Without giving too much away, ``Enigma Variations'' pivots on Znorko's disclosures about a former lover he (improbably) hasn't seen for many years, and two subsequent revelations. The first you'll likely see coming 10 minutes in advance; the second, better camouflaged, makes you replay ``Enigma Variations'' in your mind, with more emotional payoffs than the first time around.
Unfortunately, whenever the dramatic action starts gaining speed, it bumps up against Schmitt's increasingly ponderous pon·der·ous
1. Having great weight.
2. Unwieldy from weight or bulk.
3. Lacking grace or fluency; labored and dull: a ponderous speech. See Synonyms at heavy. dialogue, which the actors and director Daniel Roussel perhaps take too seriously for its own good. Granted, even brilliant minds may turn mushy mush·y
adj. mush·i·er, mush·i·est
1. Resembling mush in consistency; soft.
a. Excessively sentimental. See Synonyms at sentimental.
b. when blinded by love. But the stale metaphors and trite sweet nothings that tumble from Znorko's lips would make ``The Bridges of Madison County'' sound like ``The Song of Solomon Song of Solomon, Song of Songs, or Canticles, book of the Bible, 22d in the order of the Authorized Version. Although traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, many scholars date it as late as the 3d cent. B.C. .''
``Do you know the cruelty of a caress?'' Znorko asks Larsen, and Sutherland delivers the question as if it were timeless. Later, virtually quoting himself, Znorko says of his lover, ``We were not able to forge our own two selves into one.'' This is Nobel Prize Nobel Prize, award given for outstanding achievement in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, or literature. The awards were established by the will of Alfred Nobel, who left a fund to provide annual prizes in the five areas listed above. material?
What begins as a lighthearted actors' romp grows rhetorically top-heavy and philosophically self-important, with multiple allusions to Homer, J. Alfred Prufrock, and the set of beautiful, riffing melodies composed by Sir Edward Elgar Noun 1. Sir Edward Elgar - British composer of choral and orchestral works including two symphonies as well as songs and chamber music and music for brass band (1857-1934)
Elgar, Sir Edward William Elgar that give the play its title.
``Enigma Variations'' has been given a handsome production centered around Ming Cho Lee's elegantly austere set of leaden skies and a desolate ocean framed by Znorko's book-strewn house, atmospherically enhanced by Robert Wierzel's lighting. Roussel's direction pulls you along through the extended musings on whether the platonic lovers we fabricate in our imaginations are more real than the live ones we take to our beds.
What: ``Enigma Variations.''
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Music Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through June 13.
Tickets: $29 to $40. Call (213) 628-2772.
Our rating: Two and one half stars.
Photo: Jamey Sheridan, left, and Donald Sutherland star in ``Enigma Variations,'' at the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum through June 13.