Ice Crystals

Andrew Long as a serial killer and Nancy Robinette, right, as the grieving mother of his victim, in Bryony Lavery's play about three damaged lives.
Andrew Long as a serial killer and Nancy Robinette, right, as the grieving mother of his victim, in Bryony Lavery's play about three damaged lives. (By Carol Pratt -- Studio Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

An evening of sensational acting is a cure for what ails you. It has the power to wipe away memories of those nights when the machinations on a stage are eh, blah or just plain ugh.

And ahhh! is what the superb triumvirate of Nancy Robinette, Andrew Long and MaryBeth Wise is selling in "Frozen," Bryony Lavery's crisply devastating play about the intertwining calamities that befall a criminologist, a serial killer and the mother of a murdered child.

"Frozen" is a kind of piece at which Studio Theatre excels: a taut, modern drama on an expedition to the far corners of human complexity. The production, directed by David Muse with a captivating grasp of Lavery's psychically damaged characters, is presented by Studio's Secondstage -- a designation that an offering of this caliber renders meaningless. With presentations like this and last summer's "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" (also directed by Muse), perhaps the program should be renamed "Second to None." Because, simply stated, "Frozen" is one of the most exquisitely wrought acting exhibitions to be staged in these parts in quite a while.

Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Washington theater will recognize some or all three of these performers, who among them have worked on just about every stage in town. Few playgoers, however, will have seen them better cast. If Robinette weren't such a local fixture, one would be tempted to call her performance here -- as a British homemaker trapped in the numbing vise of a protracted horror -- revelatory.

Because she regularly pulls off sterling work, though, this understated star turn is merely a cut above exemplary. Portraying Nancy, an average woman in a generic English village, Robinette somehow manages to make forgettable seem extraordinary. It's as if she's able to train a mirror on internalized suffering, the long-term variety that has been forced inward and metabolized.

Long and Wise are Robinette's ideal teammates here. In roles that in less capable hands might simply conform to the dictates of formulaic crime drama, these two actors handle the assignments with consummately intuitive, as well as technical, skill.

Wise's challenge is to balance the scholarly remove of an inquisitor into depravity with the frailty of a woman nursing private grief; her Agnetha embodies both types of coolness. Long, perhaps, has the most exacting job: planting the idea that a monster can have a soul. That his Ralph arouses complicated feelings -- pity as well as revulsion -- is the mark of a subtle performance, one that isn't forcing us to any conclusion about evil except that it can be at once enigmatic and accessible.

Lavery's play, which has enjoyed successful runs in London and New York, provoked controversy after it was alleged that the playwright had lifted words and ideas from a nonfiction book about serial killers and from an article in the New Yorker. (In news reports, Lavery has acknowledged inadvertent plagiarism.) But what makes "Frozen" so compelling has little to do with any possible clinical underpinnings. Rather, it is the riveting emotional clarity of the characters' confessions to us, and exchanges with each other, that sets off the drama's powerful tremors.

Coldness in all its forms is a motif of "Frozen," and a useful one. Designer Milagros Ponce de Leon adapts the notion effectively in the set, which consists of a series of folded screens obscuring the stage's back wall. The panels glow a translucent blue, the color of glacial ice. A poetic quality of frozenness is reflected, too, in each of the characters, and by evening's end, you see how the ice melts -- or at least cracks -- for all three.

The play includes no autopsy, perp walk or trial. It is neither whodunit nor howdunit. The exploration occurs in the more abstracted crime scenes and grieving processes of the mind.

The crux of the play is the kidnap and killing of Nancy's daughter, Rona, a girl we never meet. From this hub the narrative spokes radiate, conveyed through interwoven monologues and a chain of encounters. Wise's Agnetha, an American, flies to Britain to conduct a lecture, and then interviews the incarcerated Ralph. She also meets with Nancy, alert and gabby and, ultimately, the instigator of Ralph's chilling prison catharsis.

"Frozen" is an equilateral triangle of frigidity. It depicts each character in a distinct state of emotional paralysis. We learn, for instance, of the events that have disfigured Ralph psychologically, and of how the murder of Rona stops time for Nancy. Meanwhile, Agnetha -- who in a bit of metaphorical overkill informs us she is of Icelandic origin -- also has issues with bottled-up feelings, and not only as they pertain to the professional distance she's expected to keep from a psychopath like Ralph.

The piece hinges on the ability of the actors to hew to the surgically precise contours of their characters. The one drawback to a fine 2004 Broadway production featuring Swoosie Kurtz, Brian F. O'Byrne and Laila Robins was the tendency to some measure of scenery-chewing, particularly by O'Byrne. Long is suitably creepy and yet more believable both as a miscreant capable of luring the young and as a man able to be shown the depths of his viciousness. Long plays a scene in which Ralph obsessively pores over his prized possessions -- videotapes of child pornography -- in a way that makes his compulsions terrifying and pathetic.

Robinette, guided by a director who truly seems a Muse, has so many indelible moments that the time spent with her feels like one long, unbroken truth session.

Her most remarkable interlude might come at the end of Act I, when her character is called on to describe a touching reunion with her child's remains. At this absolutely crucial juncture, during the performance I attended, someone's cellphone went off. It was regrettable, but amazingly didn't break Robinette's concentration. On this thrilling occasion, a ring tone was no match for an actor's music.

Frozen, by Bryony Lavery. Directed by David Muse. Lighting, John Burkland; sound, Ryan Rumery; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; stunt coordinator, Lewis Shaw; dialects, Gary Logan. Approximately two hours. Through May 7 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit .

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