December 10, 2018

‘Enigma’ Brilliance

Novelist Abel Znorko, a Nobel laureate, has lived in solitude for 12 years on a remote Norwegian island, so close to the Arctic Circle that there are only two seasons — six months of day and six months of night.

His self-exile is broken only occasionally by a ferry that unloads his basic needs — namely, food, liquor, books and women.

At the winter solstice’s twilight, Erik Larsen, a reporter from a small-town newspaper, arrives. Contrary to his hermitic lifestyle, the writer has mysteriously invited Larsen for an interview. The ostensible reason is to discuss Znorko’s latest book, “The Unconfessed Love,” which, departing from the philosophical and metaphysical themes of his previous 20 novels, consists of love letters to and from an unnamed woman.

So opens the American première of French playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s “Enigma Variations,” at the Taper Forum. To reveal any more of the plot twists and turns would rank as a crime against potential patrons, second only to missing this play entirely.

“Enigma Variations,” directed by French Canadian Daniel Roussel and starring Donald Sutherland as the author and Jamey Sheridan as the reporter, is that rare work in which every prospect pleases. It has wit and depth, love and hate, mystery and frankness, superb acting and direction, and elegant set designs and music.

Edward Elgar’s composition, from which the play takes its title, consists of 14 variations on a melody that sounds familiar, but is never fully exposed or identified.

So it is with the enigma of love, ponders the playwright, in its many permutations and intensities. “There is no love without lies,” proclaims Schmitt, and he proves it by hiding the truths in his play beneath a web of lies.

Schmitt is also a master of the Wildean epigram. Are you ever bored? asks the reporter, Larsen. “Of course, not,” responds the novelist, haughtily. “I am living with me.”

Sutherland and Sheridan are on stage in every one of the play’s intermission-less 90 minutes, talking and parrying, exploring the peaks and valleys of human emotion, and their performances deserve, for once, the over-used term tour de force.

“Enigma Variations” continues through June 13 at the Taper Forum. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772, or access online