The Banyan’s current production raises questions about love, intimacy and loneliness.
By Kay Kipling
The premise of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s play Enigma Variations, now onstage in a Banyan Theater Company production, is an intriguing enough one: A small-town journalist travels to a remote Norwegian island for a rare interview with a reclusive, self-absorbed Nobel Prize-winning author, and in the course of the evening surprises of an intimate nature are revealed as the two play a twisting cat-and-mouse game. Sounds a bit like Anthony Shaffer’s theatrical hit from 1970, Sleuth, perhaps—especially since the play opens with a gunshot.
The play also intrigued when I read the script (translated from the original French) prior to opening night. Beyond the initial setup of the interview, the playwright is getting at some deeper questions regarding love, intimacy and, inevitably, the special constitution of a writer. As it comes out during their conversation, both the journalist, Erik Larsen (Dennis Elkins), and the author, Abel Znorko (Tom Markus, who also directs) have known a mysterious woman named Helen, who has been crucially important in their lives. But has either one ever really known her? Was she two different women for them? And is it possible to ever really know anyone, even someone we care about deeply?
Somehow, the piece (whose title comes from composer Edward Elgar’s best-known work) reads better than it plays, at least in this production, which is something of a disappointment. There are several reasons for this. For one, the casting is not perfect. Elkins is older than his character should be (perhaps Markus is, too), and although it’s certainly appropriate for him to seem very nervous at the outset, that behavior goes on too long and too consistently. Both actors have moments when they’re struggling to convincingly deal with the torrent of words Schmitt has written for them to say. And the pacing of the production is not taut enough to keep us engaged throughout. Certainly there are moments when we’re caught up in the mysteries that unfold here, but too often our attention flags.
The set of Znorko’s island home and the lighting that suggests a long Northern twilight approaching (both by James A. Florek) add appreciably to the play’s pensive atmosphere. But at one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission, Enigma Variations may leave many in the audience restless for a break from all the talk.
Enigma Variations runs through Aug. 5 at the Cook Theatre at the FSU Center; for tickets call 552-1032 or go to banyantheatercompany.com.