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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 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, Nobel Prize-winning man of letters named Abel Znorko. Center Theatre Group's production, which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, marks Sutherland's first stage outing in nearly 20 years, and both he and Jamey Sheridan generally acquit 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 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 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 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 dialogue, which the actors and director Daniel Roussel perhaps take too seriously for its own good. Granted, even brilliant minds may turn mushy 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.''

``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 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 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.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 8, 1999

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