Frozen by Bryony Lavery. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set design by Hugh Landwehr. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Clifton Taylor. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Starring Swoosie Kurtz. Also starring Brían F. O'Byrne, Laila Robbins, Sam Kitchin.
Though spring has finally sprung in New York, glimpses of fall and winter can still be seen and felt in the weather. Chilly winds, rain, and grey days may make sudden appearances during a spate of seasonable warmth and sunshine, only to vanish as quickly as they arrived.
Much the same can be said about Frozen. The MCC Theater production of Bryony Lavery's play, which just transferred to Circle in the Square, is a welcome glimmer of something unique and different in an otherwise fairly stolid season. But it is ultimately a wispy affair - it makes a strong impression while it's present, but once it's moved on, you might question whether it was ever there at all.
However, it must be said that Frozen is one of the best plays in recent memory to seem so transitory. In its writing, acting, and direction (by Doug Hughes), it handily meets and exceeds Broadway standards. Even the design elements - Hugh Landwehr's cool, sparse set (basically a glacial backdrop, a table, and some chairs), Clifton Taylor's crisply changing lights, and Catherine Zuber's matter-of-fact costumes - are just right and hardly suggest a drama with little desire to linger.
Yet linger it doesn't, and that's troubling in a play loaded with subject matter that should make a more lasting impression. An English woman named Nancy (Swoosie Kurtz) must cope with the disappearance of her daughter, Rhona, who left for her grandmother's house but never reached her destination. While Nancy won't learn Rhona's fate for many years, we know that she met Ralph (Brían F. O'Byrne), a man with a strong desire for harming children, and was brutalized by him in particularly horrific ways.
Lavery uses this series of events to introduce a third character, an American named Agnetha (Laila Robins), who's visiting London to do research for her thesis about whether serial killing may be considered a forgivable act. The subject of her investigation is Ralph: Was he truly responsible for his actions, she wonders, or were they beyond his control?
Lavery nicely connects the characters through Rhona, though they're also linked by their inability to cope with their emotions. They are, in effect, frozen, and Lavery's examination of how the characters discover their coolness - and how they begin to melt - is her finest dramatic stroke. The characters' relationships grow and deepen in such subversive and unexpected ways that by the time the final associations are made, it proves quite surprising how detailed and intricate Frozen's dramatic construction really is.
Its structure, however, is more problematic, and doesn't always serve to make the play as effective (or memorable) as it could be. The first act is generally a series of lengthy, expository monologues, only occasionally punctuated by the presence of another character. These speeches, while expertly delivered, don't convey much immediacy; Robins plays hers with an almost professional detachment, and Kurtz seems to be delivering hers as a recollection of a memory, there and yet not there. Only O'Byrne seems rooted in the here and now.
Things improve in the second act, when the characters interact with each other more often and begin to come to terms with the issues surrounding them. But while a firm sense of reality does take hold of Frozen more strongly here than at any time previous, it's not quite enough - something about the show still doesn't feel particularly relevant or in the moment. It's as if we're monitoring the characters in an observation room, not as if they're living their lives in front of us. We can understand, appreciate, and even sympathize with what's happening, but we're seldom really involved.
That this can happen with a fine director such as Hughes and his impeccable cast is, more than anything else, responsible for the play's incorporeal feeling. Perhaps they're all having difficulty adjusting to the new space - after all, previews began only a week ago, and the Circle in the Square is considerably larger than the East 13th Street Theatre (where Frozen played off Broadway), which may make generating intimacy with this play an ongoing challenge.
It's likely that the actors will discover the necessary size as performances continue; they make few other mistakes. They (and Sam Kitchin, who never speaks in his role as a guard) are all excellent, and articulate their roles with great detail and variety. Agnetha's first-act breakdown, Nancy's painful description of her daughter's bedroom, and O'Byrne's kidnap scene are all beautifully handled, and provide strong characterological foundations on which they and Hughes can build. Hughes, for his part, keeps the production thoughtful, clean, and perfectly paced.
Actually, perhaps he's done too good a job; in many ways, Frozen feels as if it's finished before it's begun. That can't stop the play from being a noteworthy achievement this season, and one that's more than welcome on Broadway, but it's difficult not to wish that Frozen wouldn't warm up to itself - and us - just a little bit more.