Photo by Craig SchwartzFRENCH PLAYWRIGHT ERIC-EMMANUEL SCHMITT uses Edward Elgar's “The Enigma Variations” to spark his similarly titled mystery (in its American premiere at the Mark Taper Forum). The play certainly enchants, though in the end, there's not much that's enigmatic about it. Rather, after a brief metaphysical excursion, it settles a bit too tidily into a cozy view of human connectedness, rather like Sartre's No Exit with everyone becoming friends.

In Daniel Roussel's carefully calibrated staging of Roeg Jacob's tart translation from the French, the lights come up on a tattily dressed, silver-haired gent (Donald Sutherland), in hiding from the world, gazing pensively from a tiny corner of his expansive study out over a broad wash of the Norwegian Sea while listening to the brooding opening movement of Elgar's 14 variations on an impossible-to-locate-theme. The music is the lonely character's connection to the memory of a woman — emblemized in a nude statue near the room's center — who will never appear and who will yet become the play's fulcrum.

But the similarities between Elgar's composition and Schmitt's play end with the title. Elgar's orchestral portraits — each characterizing one of the composer's friends or acquaintances — rollick and cavort around the staffs and key signatures with ever-shifting rhythms and tonalities. Schmitt's play, on the other hand, hangs taut with a kind of precision and economy rarely seen on our stages, with its single isolated, cavernous Norwegian habitat and just two characters onstage. Both are male: a haughty, playful and somewhat sadistic Nobel Prize­winning novelist named Abel Znorko (Sutherland) and a seemingly earnest and ingenuous younger man (Jamey Sheridan) who arrives shortly into the first scene, introducing himself as small-town journalist Erik Larsen — ostensibly there to interview the writer.

Schmitt's is the kind of structure that playwriting programs want their students to master. Via the influence of a 19th-century Frenchman named Eugene Scribe, creator of the “well-made play,” Enigma Variations obeys all the traditional rules of dramatic unity penned by Aristotle and pretty well ignored by subsequent playwrights until about the 19th century.

Which means, as mentioned earlier, that there's just one setting. (Ming Cho Lee's commodious yet sparsely decorated study contains, in addition to the statue, a small grand piano; people and objects are dwarfed by looming, ash-planked walls, not to mention a sweeping backdrop of sea and clouds that grows steadily more ominous under Robert Wierzel's lights.) Also, there is no compression or expansion of time: The ticking of the characters' watches corresponds to that of our own. Finally, there is the business of the “action,” which progresses along a singular line.

Seeming strangers, the men simply talk for 90 minutes (with the exception of a few rifle blasts, but that's really all in jest), keeping us riveted throughout with revelations and reversals — a testament to Schmitt's craftmanship. The characters haul more than a decade of memories onto the stage in the course of their sparring. They lie a lot, and catch each other lying, engaging each other in psychological warfare and — through the woman at the heart of their discussion, and a pivotal packet of love letters — they find themselves inexorably bonded. In fact, that statue near the piano, representing the object of their affection, is not unlike the equally enigmatic white painting in Yasmina Reza's Art (recently closed at the Doolittle) in its function as both catalyst and mirror. In each play, what is presumed to be authentic is largely a mirage, while the plot and the action are contained in the talk of men ruminating on sex, love, art and the meaning of existence. Is it mere coincidence that both playwrights are French?

IN LESSER ACTORS' HANDS, THIS PLAY WOULD FIZZLE. That both characters are such chronic and tactical liars requires a tenderness of style that can endear them to us, in order to prevent the production from dissolving into a neurotic squabble. And prevent it these actors do. Both are gentlemen in the fullest sense of that word, leaping over the play's hurdles with a grace that's far more pastoral than the play itself. (To start, they're both wearing soft-soled shoes, which allow them to pad across the stage in a kind of genteel ballet, even when one is calling the other an idiot.)

Add to this the fact that Sutherland, more than just an actor, is a force of nature. In this, his L.A. theater debut — and his first stage role in almost 20 years — Sutherland appeared at times on opening night to be in a panic, not judging by his body language but by a certain flicker in the eyes, combined with a tone of voice that indicated, more than once at the completion of a monologue, that he had just scaled a cliff and would rather like to sit down for a breather. It's inevitable, however, that with the passing weeks, this apprehension will evaporate into the man's largesse — the very quality that has allowed him to play villains on film without a trace of paltriness. Meanwhile, Sheridan's Erik Larsen is a wonderful foil, the boxiness of his face bespeaking a naiveté that's as much an illusion as Znorko's pomposity.

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.

translated by ROEG JACOB | At the MARK TAPER FORUM,
135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through June 13

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