The well-made play isn't in particularly good repute nowadays and hasn't been for some decades. One colleague of mine has even come dangerously close to suggesting that dramas with an invisible fourth wall ought to be consigned to television, that well-known middle- and low-brow retreat. Coincident with the increased shaming of the Ibsen-Chekhov tradition as embarrassingly outmoded has been a concomitant increased experimentation with form.
Which has led, also increasingly, to curious items like Bryony Lavery's Frozen. The piece concerns a serial child-killer called Ralph In Wantage (Brían F. O'Byrne); the mother of one of his victims, who's called Nancy (Swoosie Kurtz); and American psychologist Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Laila Robins), who's come to study Ralph for research she's doing into the pertinent pathology. In Frozen -- which was named best of the year for its 1998 Birmingham, England production and went on to further acclaim at London's Royal National prior to its current MCC Theater production -- important contemporary issues loom like billboards on a highway. Among them are societal concerns about registered sex offender laws and the more personal dilemma of withholding or extending forgiveness for grievous sins.
Avoiding anything that might feel conventional, Lavery has stumbled headlong into one of the pitfalls of that approach: She hasn't written an illustrated lecture rather than a play. The piece consists of series of alternating monologues sometimes interspersed with one-on-one scenes. Lavery has tried to disguise what she's done with, wouldn't you know, conventional-play fillips. The lecturer, as you might imagine, is Agnetha, who hints early at the title's significance when likening analysis of the brain's workings to Arctic exploration. Over the course of the two-act work, Agnetha has a number of meetings with the initially remorseless Ralph, who also addresses the audience solo on a few occasions.
"Frozen" also refers to Nancy's plight as the mother of Rhona, who was 10 and on her way to her grandmother's house when abducted by Ralph and, ironically, imprisoned close to home for some days before she was murdered. (The Little Red Riding Hood glimmers may or may not indicate a conscious intention on Lavery's part to stress the underpinnings of fairy tales as dealing with well-founded childhood fears.) Understandably embittered, Nancy refuses in her first monologues to pardon Ralph; she's so adamant that she becomes active in a couple of organizations aimed at vigilance against child molestation. But she slowly comes to realize that her position has, well, frozen her and she needs to do something about it if she's to resume anything like a productive life.
Agnetha, Nancy, and Ralph become further linked when Nancy decides she needs to meet Ralph despite Agnetha's recommendation that such an encounter is inadvisable. The meeting takes place and leads to a few repercussions that won't be detailed here but illustrate Lavery's further point that there may be as many negative effects of emotional thaw as there are positive effects. And, somewhere along the way, it's revealed that Agnetha herself is emotionally incapacitated as a result of her relationship with a colleague named David Nabkus, whom she frequently mentions when discussing their research into criminal behavior.
Much is depicted as frozen in Lavery's opus, including set designer Hugh Landwehr's large-scale backdrop, which looks like cracked blue ice; Clifton Taylor's chilly lighting; and David Van Tieghem's ice-breaking-up sound effects. There's no denying that the questions Lavery raises through the characters are compelling. Many theatergoers will find themselves moved by the time the play ends and the three focal characters (there's also a guard, played by Sam Kitchin, who never speaks) have moved on in one way or another. Ticket buyers don't leave unaffected by the various ambiguities to which they just been exposed; perhaps they've even had to unfreeze previous attitudes.
But Lavery achieves her results more by telling than showing. At times, the exposition stops just short of charts and graphs. (No, wait: There is a sequence in which Brían O'Byrne appears as if he's a slide of the human brain and Agnetha does some cortex-frontal lob banter.) When Lavery attempts to mask her method, she runs into trouble, especially with the frosty Agnetha. Trying to make her more than a clinician dispensing facts, Lavery contrives the back story about David Nabkus and complicates it; in doing so, she only makes this segment of the play register as that much more artificial. Only sporadically does Lavery shake things up with meat-on-your-bones drama. For example, the scene in which Nancy visits Ralph clicks because it is a scene and not an objective presentation of contemporary medical scientific findings.
Perhaps Lavery can be cut some slack because, in writing these monologues and this handful of scenes, she's provided material that actors can sink their teeth into. And, wearing Catherine Zuber's matter-of-fact costumes, Kurtz and O'Byrne do some deep sinking. At first holding on to her English accent for dear life and sacrificing commitment to the lines because of it (the ubiquitous Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach), Kurtz eventually gets under Nancy's skin and, consequently, under the audience's. Her tight features are even tighter in this role, which requires her to be resentful and unrelenting. She makes the most of one particular moment when, told something she'd rather not hear, light drains from her eyes and her mouth tautens all but imperceptibly. It's the kind of reaction, more often associated with film, that accomplished performers make count; Kurtz is in that rank.
O'Byrne's skinny and quick-to-flinch Ralph is, as might be expected, flashy. One of the first things he flashes are his tattoos (designed by Angelina Avallone and therefore not real, which differentiates O'Byrne from many of today's genuinely tattooed players). As the play unfolds, the hardness implied by Ralph's personal tattoo gallery is shown to be just show, and O'Byrne is thorough about unmasking the frightened man underneath the criminal carapace. Laila Robins, another of Manhattan's always reliable actors, lectures pleasantly and plays Agnetha's concealed anguish with her usual aplomb.
MCC's resident director Doug Hughes orchestrates the actors adroitly, although he has allowed one odd moment to take place that isn't illuminated anywhere in the script. Hoping to put Ralph at ease during an interview, Agnetha makes the rather unorthodox move of lifting one foot up to the seat of the chair in which she's sitting. It's a provocative gesture that wouldn't appear to be in the best interest of effective psychiatry, yet it's there. This piece of direction might make sense if Agnetha has it in mind to see how Ralph reacts to a woman's sexual innuendo rather than to a child's innocence, but it goes unremarked on and the audience is left to wonder what Agnetha could possibly be thinking.
For some reason, this spring has been rife with stage sociopaths, but none of the playwrights have adequately solved the problems of bringing these characters to complete dramatic realization. Maybe, as much as anything, it's the appropriate dramaturgy that's frozen.