Like the rough waves that break outside protagonist Abel Znorko’s isolated island compound, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s “Enigma Variations” proves relentlessly compelling. One wouldn’t exactly call Schmitt’s play a deep work — despite its philosophical pretensions, it’s more witty than wise — but “Enigma” possesses a strange, restless energy that holds one’s attention despite deep flaws.
As with “Art,” another French play that cloaks humor in philosophical trappings, “Enigma Variations” comes to Los Angeles, where it receives its American premiere, in a spirited translation, in this case by Roeg Jacob. But whereas “Art” had a central trio, “Enigma” must make do with only two characters: the Nobel Prize-winning author Znorko (Donald Sutherland) and a provincial newspaper reporter come to interview him, Erik Larsen (Jamey Sheridan). Their battle of wits takes place not in Paris but in Znorko’s living room on a remote island near the North Pole.
Thankfully, helmer Daniel Roussel doesn’t allow either Sutherland or Sheridan to affect even vaguely Scandinavian accents, and so we’re able to perceive these two characters as universal types, clearly what Schmitt intended.
Sutherland, of course, has the meatier role. Znorko is not only brilliant — tossing off epigrams like no one since Oscar Wilde — but also cold, snobbish and even mean. We get the impression that were he not a recluse, Znorko would make mind games his trade.
Larsen arrives to visit the recalcitrant writer following the publication of Znorko’s 21st book, “The Unconfessed Love,” an epistolary novel made up of love letters, and a marked departure from the rest of his oeuvre. At first, Znorko is a predictably terrible host, but a prolonged lack of human contact has made him desirous to connect with almost anyone, and so when Larsen attempts to leave, Znorko implores him to stay.
Perhaps fearing that even ersatz philosophical banter will tire auds, Schmitt has inserted an overarching mystery into his play. That may partly explain why he has named “Enigma” after a famous orchestral work by Edward Elgar, though the connection ultimately feels tenuous. (In fact, Schmitt should have titled this work “The Two Helens.”)
But though mystery is central to this work, it remains its weakest component. Some of Schmitt’s twists not only strain credulity but also common sense. Theatergoers who enjoyed Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” and Ira Levin’s “Death Trap” may have no problem segueing from the high-minded to the convoluted and, finally, to the silly, but less forgiving patrons will feel a sense of betrayal, as though Schmitt, running out of things to say, turned on them and his characters.
As for the thesps, no complaints. Sutherland sometimes sounds as though he’s memorized his lines a little too well, but his stately, avuncular presence, helped by a gray beard and a baggy cardigan, proves a welcome one. Moreover, he can deliver zingers like few others today, and that talent is essential in this play.
Sheridan in some ways has the harder part, playing the rube, then the honest soul, then the conniver. But he handles every permutation effectively, and he never stands in the shadow of the more charismatic Sutherland.
Roussel directs with attractive economy, keeping the actors in cool motion but perking things up with an abrupt exit every so often. His task is helped immeasurably by set vet Ming Cho Lee’s strikingly beautiful stage design, which features Znorko’s two-story living room, complete with raging fireplace, Robert Graham sculpture and huge picture windows. (Funny how life on a remote Arctic island suddenly doesn’t appear so bad, after all.)
But while “Enigma” may be beautiful to look at, and even to listen to, its lunge south two-thirds through is a bitter disappointment for those hoping that a real play of ideas would once more grace the Taper stage. Figuring out why that’s failed to happen is the real enigma here.