A 40-minute intermission for a false fire alarm at the reviewed performance may have marred the rhythm and impact of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s “Enigma Variations,” but it also provided Donald Sutherland an opportunity to deliver a bravura impromptu performance in the moments before the curtain descended. As bells loudly clanged, he simply sank back on a chair and uttered unscripted laugh lines: “If it’s for me, I’m not here.”
When the curtain went up again, Sutherland and John Rubenstein, his co-star in this two-hander, seamlessly took up where they had left off. The unexpected drama, however, did not improve the overall experience of seeing “Enigma Variations.”
Play’s the kind most West End and Broadway audiences seem to like. It seems profound even as it entertains. It’s loaded with clever laugh lines but is just serious enough to leave the impression that great feelings have been unleashed, stroked and tucked away in time for the last line. But unlike, say, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” or “The Weir,” both of which dare to tap sentiment without wallowing in it, and maneuver through social issues with honesty, “Enigma Variations” only gives the illusion of doing so via glib turns of phrase, a bit of mystery, a few surprises and a cop-out ending.
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Schmitt is an elegant writer, and there is some pleasure in listening to the characters speak. The surprises, when they come, are genuine. But expectations that Schmitt’s interest in the enigmatic nature of love will result in new insights are disappointed. Ultimately, one has heard it all before.
As a Nobel laureate writer going head-to-head with a member of the press, Sutherland is seemingly well cast. But whether it’s his 20-year absence from the stage or the failure of director Anthony Page to pull out a full performance, it feels like the chops just ain’t there. Sutherland does beautifully on pompousness and has great comic timing, but his gradual — and emotionally critical — unraveling seems false.
Rubenstein fares better, but he is firmly anchored by Sutherland’s “star” presence and has to fight to take equal stage time. And yet it is he, in the end , who garners the sympathy that should be spilling over from Sutherland.