Enigma Variations is full of surprises. And the biggest one is that by the time the play's over a lot of the things that are puzzling or unbelievable or irksome about it wind up making sense.
Granted, there is plenty annoying about the piece, which is receiving its East Coast premiere in White River Junction after successful runs in Europe and California. According to program notes, French playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt aims to satisfy both his intellectual friends and the working class, "who are mostly interested in plot." Yeow. I'm disinclined to jump on the Franco-bashing bandwagon, but that distinction does stink of the worst kind of pretentious French academic-think. Besides being condescending, it's inaccurate: Schmitt's skillfully arranged plot twists would appeal to most any audience, but I doubt anyone other than his friends welcomes his characters' metaphysical meanderings.
Schmitt takes the title of his play from an orchestral work by British composer Edward Elgar. But there's a fundamental difference between the two works. Listeners have never been able to pinpoint what Elgar was writing variations upon, because he leaves the central musical theme tantalizingly obscure, if there is one at all. Schmitt makes his central themes thuddingly clear: Do we really know the people we love? Or are love and identity mere constructs of the imagination, perhaps even less "real" than the world conjured up by a good novel? Good questions -- enigmas, even -- but he feels compelled to have his characters trot them out, just in case we miss the point, with loaded clunkers like "How can you be sure the truth tells you more than the lie?"
On the other hand, Schmitt can be a mean man with a witty epigram. He's particularly adept at the Oscar Wildean switchback, as in this bon mot: "Beware of ugly women. They're completely irresistible." Or this exchange: "Isn't it exhausting living with a genius?" "Not as exhausting as living with an idiot."
These sudden sharp reversals consistently hit their marks, so you can almost forgive lines like "Your silence speaks volumes" or "Spare me your bourgeois philosophy," which is so tempting to quote as a critical response that I suspect Schmitt included it on purpose.
It is a very craftily constructed script, to be sure. Herman Petras plays Abel Znorko, a misanthropic Nobel Prize-winning novelist who fires a shotgun at visitors to his Norwegian island home. He has inexplicably agreed to an interview with Erik Larsen (Anthony Marble), a small-town journalist he has never met. Soon it becomes clear that Larsen has more on his mind than a celebrity profile, and that Znorko's motives for allowing the interview are equally veiled. The truth, revealed bit by bit, revolves around a woman whom both men think they know very well.
The audience member sitting beside me was one step ahead of the playwright all the way, leaning over and whispering her predictions before each new disclosure. I have to give her credit for her perceptiveness, if not for her play-going etiquette, because I was not as adept. But that was part of the fun. And in retrospect, the satisfying conclusion -- which addresses but, fortunately, leaves unanswered all of Schmitt's Big Questions -- made up for many of my nagging objections.
I wonder, though, whether I would have been less bothered by the play's talkiness, and by the characters' at times implausible changes of heart, if director Dennis Lee Delaney had been able to forge a deeper connection between the two actors. Petras and Marble are both spry, intelligent performers who seem at home with Schmitt's cerebral turns of phrase. But their cat-and-mouse game isn't as consistently compelling as it could be. We learn eventually that there's something between Larsen and Znorko which neither they nor the audience can at first fathom. That bond has to be magnetic, irresistible to us as well as to the actors, if it's to sustain us through all the talk. When it lags, the play is just so many epigrams.
Costumes by Rachel Kurland confuse matters a bit. Larsen, who's lanky with a stylishly scruffy beard, seems a little better-tailored than most journalists I know, though that may or may not be an intentional clue. Znorko, on the other hand, looks a bit too avuncular in his knit sweater and corduroys to be the ladies' man he's reputed to be. Set and lighting by James Wolk and Jason J. Rainone are impeccable, suggesting both a solidly well-appointed writer's den and, in the ghostly scrim of birches in the background, a world of the imagination.
Finally, much credit to the enterprise and imagination of Northern Stage Artistic Director Brooke Ciardelli, formerly Wetzel, who saw this play with Donald Sutherland in London, tracked it down and snagged it for the East Coast premiere. I may not share her enthuasiam for the script, but I applaud her ambition.