A bearded Donald Sutherland appears smiling on the program cover for "Enigmatic Variations," (titled "Enigma Variations" in U.S. productions) so it comes as no pleasure to report that the joke is on him. Sutherland has done relatively little stage work in the course of an impressive film career (104 movies and counting) that has ranged widely and well across genres, directors and decades, which is why it emerges as that much more of a shock that his theatrical taste should stoop so low. In its defense, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's play clearly isn't short on Gallic pretension. There's lots of gabble about "the existential alienation of closeness" (huh?), for starters, as if the playwright is aspiring to take over where Jean-Paul Sartre left off. But for all its high-minded musings on the ways of the heart, the play rings entirely hollow, done in by a silly, ultimately preposterous, scenario that is eliciting muffled snorts of derision by the eagerly awaited curtain.

A bearded Donald Sutherland appears smiling on the program cover for “Enigmatic Variations,” (titled “Enigma Variations” in U.S. productions) so it comes as no pleasure to report that the joke is on him. Sutherland has done relatively little stage work in the course of an impressive film career (104 movies and counting) that has ranged widely and well across genres, directors and decades, which is why it emerges as that much more of a shock that his theatrical taste should stoop so low. In its defense, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s play clearly isn’t short on Gallic pretension. There’s lots of gabble about “the existential alienation of closeness” (huh?), for starters, as if the playwright is aspiring to take over where Jean-Paul Sartre left off. But for all its high-minded musings on the ways of the heart, the play rings entirely hollow, done in by a silly, ultimately preposterous, scenario that is eliciting muffled snorts of derision by the eagerly awaited curtain.

Sutherland acquits himself gallantly and at times even movingly, as he did nearly two decades ago in Edward Albee’s ill-fated Broadway “Lolita” in 1981, but the play never begins to deserve its star’s very real charisma and skill.

Instead, one is left pondering the genuine enigmas of the occasion: How has Schmitt’s script survived such extensive travels, albeit in different versions? (The current translator — Sutherland’s 26-year-old son, Roeg — is this play’s second.) And what sort of assessor of text is a leading man, capable of conveying quietly affecting truths onscreen in “Ordinary People” and “Six Degrees of Separation” (among numerous other fine perfs) only to land onstage in what the British — with endearing bluntness — call tosh?

It’s possible that “Enigmatic Variations” is more entertaining to act than to watch. The action depends on so many (largely ludicrous) twists — at least four major ones by my count — that the performers may take pleasure in catching the audience unprepared.

Still, it’s one thing for a writer to manipulate a plot by stealth (think Ira Levin, a true boulevardier) and quite another for dramatic strategies to upend all reason or sense to the extent that “Enigmatic Variations” ends up pursuing a path — homoerotic, as it happens — that seems to scare even itself.

There’s a world of difference between plays that tease and those that refuse to play fair, although you have to admire the let’s-try-anything-twice shamelessness of a script that throws in cancer as a narrative hand grenade two-thirds of the way through and then once again in time for the final curtain.

One mustn’t say too much about proceedings for fear of giving the game away, beyond pointing out how many of the various plot points don’t add up.

John Rubinstein is Erik Larsen, a feisty journalist who has inveigled an interview with Sutherland’s Nobel Prize-winning recluse, Abel Znorko, on the occasion of the celebrated laureate’s 21st novel and its (to Larsen, anyway) enigmatic dedication.

Much is made of Znorko’s recalcitrance and ferocity, as befit a man who has sequestered himself away on his own island (his circumstances vaguely echo those of Bergman’s) where he has everything — women included — brought in by boat.

The men’s initial encounter extends “meeting cute” to the unexpected realm of gunfire, and it isn’t long after that Znorko is dismissing Larsen’s “sea of banality” (he doesn’t realize the half of it) and sending him on his way.

End of play, you think, except that “Enigmatic Variations” has 80 minutes to go, during which time it toys excessively with the (unearned) affinities to Elgar implicit in the title and relates a love triangle so daft that I defy anyone to sit through its contortions straight-faced.

Anthony Page’s direction does what it can to provide the illusion of juice, and there’s no doubt that Sutherland looks as if he’s having a ball, peering quizzically out at the flat, tundra-filled reaches suggested by Ming Cho Lee’s airy, Ikea-perfect set.

A large, grizzled presence, Sutherland’s Znorko is, if anything, too genial for so ostensibly dyspeptic a figure, but that’s a forgivable problem given the delectable vanity of a character who announces that, naturally, he doesn’t get bored: “Of course I don’t,” he says, justifying his isolation. “I’m with me.”

Less easily tolerated are the vulgar lapses in a script that must have sounded better in French. One minute, Znorko is vilifying Larsen, whom he finds “as sexy as an overcooked asparagus.” (Limp one, guys.) A reference to the pair’s future as rap musicians, meanwhile, reeks of desperation.

On the other hand, perhaps rap would be preferable to the subsequent litany of cliched images — “a little bird without wings,” “larks in the sky” — intended, presumably, to pull at the heartstrings, when in fact the main tug felt during “Enigmatic Variations” is the one toward the exit.

Enigmatic Variations

Savoy Theater, London; 1,143 seats; £30 ($45) top

Production

A Duncan C. Weldon, Francine Racette, David & Ed Mirvish and the Mark Taper Forum/Gordon Davidson presentation of a play in one act by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated by Roeg Sutherland. Directed by Anthony Page.

Creative

Sets, Ming Cho Lee; costumes, Candice Cain; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Jon Gottlieb. Opened, reviewed May 31, 2000. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Abel Znorko - Donald Sutherland Erik Larsen - John Rubinstein
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