Schmitt has been down this road before. In his play Le Libertin,he reduces philanderer and moral philosopher Denis Diderot to French toast as he's having his portrait painted. In one scene, Diderot explains to his wife that being a libertine means being able to disassociate love from sex. She suggests that he might as well write about cooking as about morality, since he knows nothing about either. This could well be Znorko and Larsen going at it -- or an excerpt from a play by Musset or Marivaux. (Yes, there are such things as national themes.)
EDWARD ELGAR CHALLENGED HIS LISTENERS TO FIND A unifying theme in his "Enigma Variations." There isn't one -- a little joke Elgar took to the grave in 1934. Something of a theme starts to emerge in the opening "Enigma" and its subsequent andante, but it dissolves like a melody on the radio melting into static. It comes up for air in the lugubrious "Nimrod" variation -- which could be the slow movement to any great symphony of the romantic era -- but it is neither sufficiently embellished, nor does it stick around long enough, to establish itself as the centerpiece. Since Elgar's death, musicologists and laymen have labored to unmask the theme, arriving at sundry speculations -- about, for example, how it can be discovered if one hums certain Negro spirituals, or even "Auld Lang Syne," in tandem with any of the variations. Last year, after meticulous research, a Midlands businessman published a thesis that the contrapuntal theme is actually "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" -- enraging more somber-minded Elgar devotees.
One can discuss Elgar's musical portraits at length and to no ill-effect, but a critic is pretty much gagged when discussing the nuances of Schmitt's play. To reveal almost any detail is like poking one's finger in a house of cards, so fragile is the architecture of its suspense.
The play has many virtues. Its banter about journalists versus artists, about the truth of facts versus the truth of myths, will continue to fascinate until the world falls off its axis, as will the characters' dance around the essences of love and sex and devotion.
But even with all that, I wouldn't go back to see Enigma Variations again, mostly because it lacks mystery, which is a bit ironic, given the title. One of the reasons to return to Shakespeare and Chekhov and Elgar is that they keep us guessing. Whereas, after Schmitt has peeled back the characters' layers of contradiction, we're done. We know who they are and what they're about. It's the well-made plight of the well-made play.
ENIGMA VARIATIONS| By ERIC-EMMANUEL SCHMITT, translated by ROEG JACOB | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through June 13