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Mystery of self in the `Pyrenees'

An amnesiac is blithely getting along without his identity when a piece of his past shows up.

July 11, 2006|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

What begins as an inquiry into the elusive nature of identity deepens into a rueful meditation on unfulfilled lives, as the prolific Scottish playwright David Grieg's "Pyrenees" receives its American premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Striking in its avoidance of sudden violence, four-letter invectives and other attention-grabbing tropes employed by the author's flashier contemporaries, Grieg's drama engages with deliberate pacing, poetic insight and carefully drawn characters. Tapping a talented cast, Neel Keller's thoughtful, handsome staging realizes many of the play's mysteries and idiosyncratic delights, but it's still searching for an igniting spark to unify the experience.

The initial mystery revolves around a middle-aged man (Tom Irwin) discovered in the snow at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains with a briefcase full of money and a scallop shell medallion (the calling card of a pilgrim on a quest of atonement). Other than a vague sense that he is English, he claims to have no memory of a personal history. While he has no trouble recalling facts about the world, what's missing is "my place in it."

Yet this is no English Patient on a ski trip. The stranger seems quite comfortable with his clean slate. His outsider predicament resonates with Anna (Tessa Thompson), the attractive younger woman sent by the British Consulate to investigate his identity. In a textbook example of elegant character introduction without recourse to exposition, Grieg skillfully telegraphs her name and life story in a few lines: her clumsiness with a tape recorder leads her to recall her childhood nickname, "Spazzy Anna," a taunt cruelly inspired by her epileptic seizures (whose consciousness-erasing fits mirror the man's soul-cleansing in the snow). Thompson navigates these offhand revelations with perfectly pitched honesty.

At a mountain inn, all but deserted in the off-season, the two try to piece together clues to the stranger's identity from his vocabulary and behavior. If the stranger has difficulty finding one identity, the inn's annoying proprietor (Jan Triska) has the opposite problem: He's an amalgam of personalities who invokes whatever national heritage helps make his point -- unfortunately, many of his comic opportunities are lost in over-amped, thickly accented delivery.

In the course of their interview, a decidedly unprofessional undertow of attraction develops between Anna and the stranger, nurtured in a setting far removed from the constraints of everyday life. This liberating isolation is stunningly evoked in Mark Wendland's three-tiered semi-realistic set.

Suspended between the heavens and shadowy depths, their growing attachment is shattered by the appearance of the inn's other guest, Vivienne (the perfectly cast Frances Conroy), a calmly self-deprecating woman from Edinburgh who says she's his wife.

According to her, Keith (he finally gets a name) was a bored civil servant who had an affair with a stripper, faked his death and took off on a motorcycle tour of Europe with some Norwegian Hells Angels. His snowbound amnesia is the culmination of a desperate attempt to shed his past life like old skin.

Throughout the first act, Irwin's breezy nonchalance about his character's lack of identity is strikingly at odds with the natural inquisitiveness one would expect. It ultimately makes sense as the mystery of Keith's past gives way to a sad comment on the psychological dodges he's employed to keep from confronting the fact that he could have lived a bigger life.

Nevertheless, his initial lack of concern creates a basic obstacle out of the gate: If he doesn't care who he is, why should we? As a result, Irwin has to work extra hard to engage us in Keith's journey -- he succeeds best in Keith's erotically charged scenes with Anna, but once the triangle is set up, the gulf between Keith and Vivienne is never bridged with an emotional resolution the play demands.



Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Sundays

Ends: July 30

Price: $20 to $40

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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