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In the Key of Very Sharp

Donald Sutherland, making his L.A. stage debut in 'Enigma Variations,' is not a man to be pigeonholed.

April 25, 1999|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

Donald Sutherland has a piano lesson at 6 p.m., and he is not wearing a watch. Are we in trouble here? Among the actors capable of wounding you with a withering stare for making them late, Sutherland would be right up there with the withering elite, except that the longer you are with him, the more it's plain he means you no harm and is probably not going to worry too much about the time anyway.

Endowed with a face and mien that can suggest chilly superiority or the hidden rites of Walpurgis Night, underneath he reveals himself to be solicitous, intellectual and kind. And he would like to see your Volvo if you own one--perhaps just to make sure it's as good as he says they are in all those commercials. (He owns two.)

Shards of Donald Sutherland from 101 movies are loose in the national imagination, pieces of "Klute" and "MASH" and "Ordinary People" and "Kelly's Heroes" and "Outbreak." But he comes now to our attention as a movie star returning to the stage, with the approaching opening of the American premiere of a new French play, "Enigma Variations," by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, at the Mark Taper Forum. If that qualifies as an event to those curious about the sometimes tenuous connection between the city's flagship art theater and Hollywood, it qualifies to Sutherland as only incidental information, something to which he has given little or no thought.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 9, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Page 83 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
"Enigma" credits--A profile of Donald Sutherland in connection with his appearance in "Enigma Variations" at the Mark Taper Forum (April 25) did not acknowledge that the translator of the play has changed. It is now Sutherland's son, Roeg Jacob. In addition, "Enigma" director Daniel Roussel's name was misspelled, and the name of the television show Jamey Sheridan appeared in was "Shannon's Deal."

"It was my wife's idea," he says simply about the decision to make his Los Angeles stage debut now at 63, returning to the theater for the first time since appearing on Broadway 18 years ago in Edward Albee's short-lived adaptation of "Lolita."

That he has never even seen a play at the Taper (as best he can recall) might say the usual something about the gulf between the movies and the theater in Los Angeles, but Sutherland says no. Instead, he says, "What does it say about me? All I can tell you is that I'm a performer. I perform."

It seems he did go to the theater in Paris, where he has lived in recent years and where he and his third wife, Francine Racette, the French Canadian actress, saw "Enigma Variations" and acquired the English-language rights (now shared with producers Emanuel Azenberg and Duncan Weldon).

The two-character drama tells the story of a meeting between a reclusive Nobel Prize-winning novelist (Sutherland) and a journalist (Jamey Sheridan) who has ventured to a remote island in the Norwegian Sea to interview him. And the enigma of the title, itself taken from a piece of music by British composer Edward Elgar, refers to . . .

"If you knew, then it wouldn't be an enigma, would it?" Sutherland says, only half-joking. "In the Elgar piece there are 14 variations based on a familiar tune, but no one has ever been able to pin it down. You think you have it, and it's gone."

Gordon Davidson, artistic director at the Taper, is a little more forthcoming when he says, "the enigma is the riddle of love and passion."


It strikes you that Sutherland is not being coy or perverse so much as he is someone whose pursuit of art, philosophy, nutrition and acting does not leave much space for plot summaries. He would rather talk about the charm of a letter Bertolt Brecht once wrote about Charles Laughton or the harrowing account in George Orwell's diaries of watching a man hanged that turned Orwell against capital punishment. That sort of thing. Or his admiration for Gary Cooper.

"It's not possible to describe it," Sutherland says about "Enigma Variations." "Stanislavsky said--and I don't agree with him necessarily--that you should be able to describe a play in one sentence. This one you can't do."

For one thing, there's the matter of it being a new play, in translation by Jeremy Sams. "French has a tendency to be more cerebral," Sutherland, who is Canadian, notes, "and this is an attempt to turn it into something more available for an American audience. It's really a work in progress. But can you really call it that? It's a translation in progress."

Schmitt, the author, teaches philosophy and has also written plays about Freud and Diderot. "It's a really interesting play. Its ideas are interesting. And it's nice to be a part of that, subservient to the intellectual process. And it's fun."

He chose for director the French Canadian Daniel Rousell, whose work he had seen and admired in Paris. "So he has both languages and is in contact with the writer and is able to bridge the two sensibilities."

He can't help remembering the time some years ago friends of his wife, in Paris, tried to cast him in another new play being readied for translation. "I went and looked at it and said, 'There's no way this play is going to run,' and I said, 'What is the title again?' They said, 'La Cage aux Folles.' I said, 'It will never work in the United States.' So, I decided to go with my wife's opinion this time."

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