In its move to Broadway, "Frozen" still manages to engage the mind and chill the heart.
Bryony Lavery's disturbing drama about the disappearance and death of a 10-year-old English girl, Rhona Shirley, is almost clinical in its examination of the incident as it looks at the reactions of three people to her murder.
The MCC Theater production, which opened in March at a small off-Broadway house, has now transferred to Circle in the Square uptown where the same fine cast, headed by Swoosie Kurtz, Brian O'Byrne and Laila Robins, seems perfectly at home.
In fact, the acting could not be better, particularly O'Byrne, who portrays the serial killer with an icy self-confidence that scares and mesmerizes at the same time. It's a bravado that finally crumbles near the end of the evening in what is the play's most harrowing moment.
What's interesting is that the strongest character in the play is Nancy, the mother of the dead girl.
The woman is played by Kurtz with a dry-eyed, matter-of-factness that is all the more moving because of its lack of sentimentality.
Nancy takes us on a bleak journey - from the moment of her daughter's disappearance (the girl is on her way to grandma's with a pair of pruning shears), the agonizing wait for news and finally, years later, the discovery of the child's remains. How the mother deals with the death is surprising and, ultimately, very moving.
Much of this is spoken directly to the audience - much of the play is in monologue, soliloquies that are almost stylized in their presentation. Yet Lavery's language is affecting, despite the scientific nature of much of the material.
That brings us to the play's third major character, an American psychiatrist, played by Robins, who has come to England to lecture on the topic of "Serial Killing ... A Forgivable Act?"
The woman finds in Rhona's murderer an intriguing subject and tries to determine if there are physical reasons for his descent into evil. Their scenes together have the feel of a cautious boxing match, jabs and feints that reveal a lot about each of the characters.
"Frozen" is a well-made play in the best sense. It is thoughtful and dramatic, and helped immeasurably by Doug Hughes' spare, unfussy direction.
The lecturer calls herself a psychiatric explorer, looking at "The Arctic frozen sea that is ... the criminal brain." And "Frozen" makes for a memorable expedition.
Bryony Lavery's "Frozen," which opened Off-Off Broadway in March and has been transferred to Broadway to qualify for Tony consideration, is about a man who has abused and murdered little girls.
The man is one of three characters. The others are the mother of one of his victims and an American psychologist.
The play contrasts the mother's visceral responses to an act that has shattered her life with the psychologist's attempts to rationalize and thus excuse a hideous crime.
While the play is unsatisfying, the performances have great power. And the physical production a simple set suggesting the esthetic appeal of ice adds greatly to the overall effect.
Most remarkable is Brian F. O'Byrne, who has a chilling matter-of-factness as the murderer, discussing his grisly life as if he were in a pub talking about his career.
As the distraught mother, Swoosie Kurtz gives a knockout performance, conveying an intensity of inexpressible emotions beneath a surface of unflappable English mundanity.
The psychologist's hypotheses about the criminal's behavior too often seem strawman arguments, designed to provide some conflict. Ultimately, the character seems contrived. Even as skillful an actress as Laila Robins cannot make her convincing.
'Frozen' deals with three people who have become, in the judgment of the play's author, Bryony Lavery, rigid, fierce and ungiving in their attitude to life. At first we see them moaning and feeling sorry for themselves in isolation; later, they interact somewhat gingerly with each other.
Of course, in this 1998 English play, things are not that simple.
The man, Ralph, is a nervous, glib, self-justifying type perfectly gotten by Brian F. O'Byrne (best remembered from the Martin McDonagh plays "Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "Lonesome West").
Ralph sells porn movies involving young girls. He also abducts, rapes and murders them until he's finally nabbed and sent to prison.
Speaking to us also in this symphony of the wounded are Nancy (Swoosie Kurtz), the heart-sore mother of the vanished, 10-year-old girl Rhona; and Agnetha (Lalla Robins), an American professor of criminology who flies to England to deliver a lecture on the criminal mind and to interview Ralph in prison.
The more these people open up, the more we learn about them. Agnetha's people, for instance, come from Iceland, which she calls "a frozen place."
Her full name is Agnetha Gottmundsdottir, her married lover was recently killed in a car crash and she wants to investigate the "frozen sea that is the criminal brain."
Nancy wants vengeance, although her surviving daughter believes in the Indian doctrine of forgiveness.
Ralph suffered dread things from his father in his childhood. And so on.
These psychological factors are not given time to develop.
All three riveting performances testify as well to the kinetic skill of director Doug Hughes, who has only a bare stage to work with. Pity the play itself amounts to little more than a sentimentalization of the criminal mind.
The softly smiling man repeats the simple greeting again and again. ''Hello,'' he says. ''Hello. Hello.'' There is hope and gentleness in the way he throws out the words, like a bird lover tossing bread crumbs to pigeons. But it is a little girl this man has fixed his attention on. And when she finally answers him, she's as good as dead.
You might expect this unsettling moment from ''Frozen,'' Bryony Lavery's humane and intelligent drama, to bring to mind a lurid detective movie. But what is most striking is the scene's aura of ordinariness.
You have the sense that this man, played by Brian F. O'Byrne in a rivetingly focused performance, is just doing what comes naturally. As he goes on to describe his plans for the little girl, it is with the bland satisfaction and technical detail of a handyman talking about a home crafts project.
''Frozen'' is indeed the story of the murder of a child and its repercussions. Yet no trace of sensationalism colors Doug Hughes's beautifully acted, carefully considered production, which stars Swoosie Kurtz, Mr. O'Byrne and Laila Robins.
Instead a contemplative quiet enfolds the stage. And the characters don't so much vent their intense emotions as betray them through involuntary eruptions that they quickly stifle. In the age of the Amber Alert and Megan's Law, ''Frozen'' brings a coolly discursive attitude to a hot-button subject. This is not to say that it is in any way unfeeling.
The play unfolds as a counterpoint of three voices. Nancy (Ms. Kurtz) is the mother of Rhona, a 10-year-old who disappears on her way to her grandmother's house nearby in a British suburb. Agnetha (Ms. Robins) is an American in London to research her thesis, titled ''Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?'' Ralph (Mr. O'Byrne) is a tattooed drifter who becomes a dominant figure in both women's lives.
An essential theme is how people channel and compartmentalize their most violent and troublesome feelings. Ralph is the most extreme example, but all three characters have become frozen psychologically. The play charts what happens as each of them thaws.
''Frozen'' can seem too conscientiously even-handed, in the style of topical debate plays. And it does not avoid the clichés of sentimental domestic best sellers as Nancy works her way through her grief. But under Mr. Hughes's clean, self-effacing direction, the performers invest their roles with a subliminal fierceness that makes this ''Frozen'' more wrenching than the London version, at least to this American theatergoer.
Ms. Robins provides a crisply detailed blueprint of one woman's professional armor. And Mr. O'Byrne and Ms. Kurtz are superb. Toward the play's end Nancy and Ralph finally meet, and their encounter is hardly predictable. It's a smartly written scene with finely graded reversals of character that support the general thrust of ''Frozen.''
But it is the precisely honed understatement of Mr. O'Byrne and Ms. Kurtz that makes this confrontation unforgettable. Cool heat, in this instance, melts the heart more effectively than any raging fire could.
Of all the dark and daring ideas in this oddly courageous Broadway season - musical assassins, East Berlin cross-dressers, murderous philosopher- gymnasts - "Frozen" may be the toughest.
A 10-year-old English girl disappears on the way to her grandmother's house. Three people - her mother, the pedophile who killed her and a visiting American criminologist - talk about it, mostly in monologues, on a minimally adorned stage.
Although the characters do ultimately interact, the story unfolds without sensationalism, detail by tiny detail, with a gnawing, cumulative theatricality.
The MCC Theater opened the U.S. premiere of Bryony Lavery's drama in March at a small, intimate, Off-Broadway space. Directed with moody austerity by Doug Hughes, three dazzling actors - Swoosie Kurtz, Brian F. O'Byrne and Laila Robins - made exquisitely specific the agony that lurks behind every lost-child photo on a milk carton.
For reasons best known to the many investors listed above the title in the program, this spare and harrowing play opened last night at Circle in the Square, which is way too big and ungainly for such a delicately observed experience. These wonderful performers hold the larger stage, but we miss the sense that we are sharing their skin, and Lavery's lean play is stretched thin by the hall.
To everyone's credit, not a gesture has been exaggerated to compensate for the missing immediacy. In lesser hands, this prolific Birmingham playwright's 1998 script could expand into the sort of emotional pornography that made-for-TV movies exploit. Even Off-Broadway, the play lapsed into the pat and the clinical. Emotional distance tends to magnify those flaws.
On the other hand, the play, which had an acclaimed production at London's National Theatre in 2002, does not flinch from the raw, often unattractive emotions of three strangers linked over 20 years by a dead girl from the English provinces.
Then there are these magnificent performances, as uncompromising as they are individual. Kurtz finds a frightening transparency in the evolution of Nancy, a reasonably discontented wife and mother who lives daily with the knowledge that she chose one of her two daughters to bring gardening shears to their grandmother's house on a particular, fateful day.
Kurtz, transformed by a startling, harsh and persuasive accent, refuses to give the woman a moment of easy emotion. We are forced to watch Nancy blossom in self-importance in her new role as a motivational speaker for families of lost children. Kurtz never lets Nancy's conflicted needs for revenge and forgiveness turn into pop psychology, a definite danger with such an unbearable subject.
O'Bryne is stunning, both terrible and almost likable as the child killer. This is a man living in his own bubble: methodical, ritualized, as proud of his tattoos as he appears comfortable with his compulsions.
Years later, when finally forced to feel what he has done, a cry comes from somewhere inside him that has the primal resonance of a groan.
Robins, as the social scientist with a neurological theory and a secret heartbreak, has the hardest character to make real, which this elegant and funny actress does, sometimes without help from the playwright. Lavery saddles the woman with pronouncements about the criminal brain, about the "differences between a crime of evil and a crime of illness," between "a sin and a symptom."
Each of these people is frozen, an image echoed by a backdrop (by Hugh Landwehr) that suggests blue cracked ice. Catherine Zuber's costumes trace the two decades with shrewd understatement. Emotional nakedness - even at a distance - does the rest.
Swoosie Kurtz no doubt has been suffering for her art this year.
Months ago, the veteran actress started living, or at least simulating, every mother's worst nightmare in MCC Theater's off-Broadway presentation of Byrony Lavery's Frozen (* * * out of four). Now Kurtz will continue doing so at Broadway's Circle in the Square, where the production reopened Tuesday night.
It would be difficult to further describe the plight of Kurtz's character, a deceptively feisty woman named Nancy, without alluding to revelations that make the first few scenes of Frozen so, well, chilling. Suffice to say that it ends up linking Nancy to the play's two other central characters: Agnetha, a "psychiatric explorer" whose chosen terrain is the minds of serial killers, and Ralph, a young man who keeps videos with titles such as Lolita's Examination, Baby Bonnie and Pre-Teen Trio meticulously filed in a big green suitcase.
As it turns out, Ralph has much more horrifying material stashed away in a shed he refers to as "my center of operations." He consequently meets up with Agnetha, who engages him in a study that brings the two too close for comfort from either's perspective, or from ours.
The contrast between Agnetha's clinical approach and the deeply visceral distress and rage that mark Nancy's experience is as sharp and clear as their eventual coming to terms with each other is predictable. Still, Lavery's compelling work doesn't make easy judgments or provide neat answers.
Credit also is due to Kurtz's typically forceful, stringent performance and to her co-star Laila Robins, whose Agnetha is by turns funny, frustrating and moving. Under Doug Hughes' brisk direction, both actresses carve out credibly complex, sympathetic women.
As Ralph, their mutual tormentor, Brian F. O'Byrne offers a picture of pathological alienation, terror and rage so convincing that it becomes almost unbearable. Just listening to this guy identify his tattoos, which include images of the Madonna and Child and of angels fighting devils against a "leafy-tree background," can be more unnerving than a murder scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Yet O'Byrne also brings pathos to the role without downplaying the despicable nature of Ralph's acts.
"The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom," Agnetha tells us at one point, observing his case.
Yet Lavery, Hughes and the cast of Frozen are too intelligent - and too respectful of our intelligence – to suggest that the questions raised here can be resolved over the course of two hours. Or ever, for that matter.
A trio of first-rate actors do what they can to warm up "Frozen," Bryony Lavery's sober exploration of the converging emotional paths of a serial killer and the mother of one of his victims.
It's easy to admire the intricate detail in Swoosie Kurtz's performance as the distraught mother who gradually comes to forgive her daughter's killer, or the chilling affectlessness of Brian F. O'Byrne as a child molester and murderer who eventually grapples with the horror of his acts. Laila Robins is impressive, too, in the more peripheral role of a psychiatrist examining the root causes of the mental aberrations behind such killers' compulsions.
But Lavery's play bring few revelations. Similar stories have been examined at length in recent years, as the public's fascination with true-crime tales has fed an explosion, in particular all over the cable TV landscape. In fact, audiences with even a cursory interest in the grisly phenomenon of serial killing may come away with questions large and small about this play's plausibility.
The drama, set in the U.K., unfolds over the course of more than two decades and is initially structured as three separate monologues woven together. Kurtz's Nancy begins by describing, in deceptively casual terms, the day on which her 10-year-old daughter Rona disappeared on the way to her grandmother's house.
Kurtz's meticulous, probing performance then traces Nancy's transformation from guilty, grieving mother to empowered activist. (She founds an organization dedicated to searching for missing kids.) Years later, prodded by her surviving daughter, who is convinced Nancy must let go of the bitterness and rage she's lived with since Rona's remains were discovered several years after her disappearance, she ultimately decides to confront her daughter's killer in prison.
Meanwhile, the killer, O'Byrne's cockney Ralph Ian Wantage, addresses us with creepy nonchalance, offhandedly describing how he lured Rona into his van, or showing off the garish tattoos that ultimately connect him to the series of child murders.
Sullen and seemingly devoid of guilt or remorse, he is most upset at the disordered way the police handled the exhuming of the bodies and the collecting of the evidence; he's particularly outraged at the idea that his expensive collection of kiddie porn has been destroyed.
The third voice in the play belongs to an emotionally brittle psychiatrist and researcher, Dr. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Robins), who comes to the U.K. to lecture about the possible causes of the pathology in question ("Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?") and finds in Ralph a prime subject. She tries to keep Nancy from visiting Ralph, unsure about the potential emotional fallout from such an encounter.
Offering their separate perspectives, the characters are, for the most part, drawn in convincing detail, even if the stylized theatrical presentation is sometimes at odds with the pseudo-documentary nature of the material. (What circumstances, we wonder, would occasion a killer's casual public discussion of his methods? To whom is he chatting?)
But occasionally a jarring detail enters the frame, as when Agnetha, in a lecture about the physiological causes of the compulsions that drive serial killers, informs us, "Most forensic psychiatrists tend to buy into the notion of evil." Oh, really? And would researchers really countenance an experiment in which children are made to suffer, so that abused kids' reactions to pain can be carefully observed?
More problematic are the scenes in the latter half of the play depicting the interaction between the shrink and the killer and, later, the killer and his victim's mother. Much of this seems stagy or false -- Agnetha's clinical methodologies are laughably simplistic and overly personal, it seems to this observer (admittedly no expert). And Nancy's cordial, solicitous attitude to her daughter's killer is not entirely credible, either.
Perhaps most contrived is Ralph's sudden emotional breakthrough following Nancy's visit, when he finally unleashes the truth about his violent upbringing. Try as they do (sometimes a little too hard, in the case of Byrne), the actors cannot bring emotional truth to these implausible exchanges, despite Doug Hughes' attentive direction.
Although Lavery has clearly done some homework, the play draws only superficially on scientific literature about the psychology of killers. The playwright tends to simplify ideas that are difficult and complex.
The title alludes to the emotional or psychological states of all three of her characters, at one point or another: Agnetha speaks of being an explorer in "the Arctic frozen sea of the criminal mind." The image is a bit grand for a play that doesn't really cover any new terrain.