A trio of first-rate actors do what they can to warm up "Frozen," Bryony Lavery's sober exploration of the converging emotional paths of a serial killer and the mother of one of his victims.

A trio of first-rate actors do what they can to warm up “Frozen,” Bryony Lavery’s sober exploration of the converging emotional paths of a serial killer and the mother of one of his victims.

It’s easy to admire the intricate detail in Swoosie Kurtz’s performance as the distraught mother who gradually comes to forgive her daughter’s killer, or the chilling affectlessness of Brian F. O’Byrne as a child molester and murderer who eventually grapples with the horror of his acts. Laila Robins is impressive, too, in the more peripheral role of a psychiatrist examining the root causes of the mental aberrations behind such killers’ compulsions.

But Lavery’s play bring few revelations. Similar stories have been examined at length in recent years, as the public’s fascination with true-crime tales has fed an explosion, in particular all over the cable TV landscape. In fact, audiences with even a cursory interest in the grisly phenomenon of serial killing may come away with questions large and small about this play’s plausibility.

The drama, set in the U.K., unfolds over the course of more than two decades and is initially structured as three separate monologues woven together. Kurtz’s Nancy begins by describing, in deceptively casual terms, the day on which her 10-year-old daughter Rona disappeared on the way to her grandmother’s house.

Kurtz’s meticulous, probing performance then traces Nancy’s transformation from guilty, grieving mother to empowered activist. (She founds an organization dedicated to searching for missing kids.) Years later, prodded by her surviving daughter, who is convinced Nancy must let go of the bitterness and rage she’s lived with since Rona’s remains were discovered several years after her disappearance, she ultimately decides to confront her daughter’s killer in prison.

Meanwhile, the killer, O’Byrne’s cockney Ralph Ian Wantage, addresses us with creepy nonchalance, offhandedly describing how he lured Rona into his van, or showing off the garish tattoos that ultimately connect him to the series of child murders.

Sullen and seemingly devoid of guilt or remorse, he is most upset at the disordered way the police handled the exhuming of the bodies and the collecting of the evidence; he’s particularly outraged at the idea that his expensive collection of kiddie porn has been destroyed.

The third voice in the play belongs to an emotionally brittle psychiatrist and researcher, Dr. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Robins), who comes to the U.K. to lecture about the possible causes of the pathology in question (“Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?”) and finds in Ralph a prime subject. She tries to keep Nancy from visiting Ralph, unsure about the potential emotional fallout from such an encounter.

Offering their separate perspectives, the characters are, for the most part, drawn in convincing detail, even if the stylized theatrical presentation is sometimes at odds with the pseudo-documentary nature of the material. (What circumstances, we wonder, would occasion a killer’s casual public discussion of his methods? To whom is he chatting?)

But occasionally a jarring detail enters the frame, as when Agnetha, in a lecture about the physiological causes of the compulsions that drive serial killers, informs us, “Most forensic psychiatrists tend to buy into the notion of evil.” Oh, really? And would researchers really countenance an experiment in which children are made to suffer, so that abused kids’ reactions to pain can be carefully observed?

More problematic are the scenes in the latter half of the play depicting the interaction between the shrink and the killer and, later, the killer and his victim’s mother. Much of this seems stagy or false — Agnetha’s clinical methodologies are laughably simplistic and overly personal, it seems to this observer (admittedly no expert). And Nancy’s cordial, solicitous attitude to her daughter’s killer is not entirely credible, either.

Perhaps most contrived is Ralph’s sudden emotional breakthrough following Nancy’s visit, when he finally unleashes the truth about his violent upbringing. Try as they do (sometimes a little too hard, in the case of Byrne), the actors cannot bring emotional truth to these implausible exchanges, despite Doug Hughes’ attentive direction.

Although Lavery has clearly done some homework, the play draws only superficially on scientific literature about the psychology of killers. The playwright tends to simplify ideas that are difficult and complex.

The title alludes to the emotional or psychological states of all three of her characters, at one point or another: Agnetha speaks of being an explorer in “the Arctic frozen sea of the criminal mind.” The image is a bit grand for a play that doesn’t really cover any new terrain.

Frozen

East 13th Street Theater, New York; 180 seats; $50 top

Production

An MCC Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Bryony Lavery. Directed by Doug Hughes.

Creative

Sets, Hugh Landwehr; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Clifton Taylor; music and sound, David Van Tieghem; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons. Artistic directors, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey. Opened March 18, 2004. Reviewed March 14. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Agnetha - Laila Robins Nancy - Swoosie Kurtz Ralph - Brian F. O'Byrne Guard - Sam Kitchin
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