When a character in "Enigma Variations" admits, "I always thought life was a bit of a con trick," the line has an unfortunate resonance. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's drama, which is getting a workmanlike production at the Gloucester Stage Company, never rises above the level of a cheap trick, one that becomes increasingly desperate in its efforts to manipulate the audience.
The title, "Enigma Variations," refers to Edward Elgar's popular composition, which includes a theme and 14 variations. One enigma is the identity of Elgar's friends, who are the subjects of the variations, while another is the identity of the melody that lies hidden within the theme.
Schmitt's premise is that the hidden melody in his play is a woman that two men have loved in completely different ways without ever really knowing her. Yet he struggles with creating a catalyst for the action and tosses in a series of increasingly ridiculous plot twists that elicit groans rather than gasps of surprise.
The action, set on a remote Norwegian island, opens with gunshots marking the arrival of Erik Larsen (David Volin), a nebbishy guy in a trench coat shouting, "Someone's shooting at me." His host, Abel Znorko (Tom Markus), replies that he is the shooter and reassures Larsen by saying he only shoots strangers on the way in. By the time they leave, they are guests, and it wouldn't be polite to shoot at them. Confused yet?
Larsen is a journalist who has come to the island to interview Znorko, a reclusive Nobel Prize-winning author, whose 21st book, considered his masterpiece, is called fiction, yet represents his years-long correspondence with his lover. He's retreated to the island to wallow in his oversize ego and his idea of a perfect relationship.
In a series of overwritten speeches, Znorko at first bristles at Larsen's suggestion that the letters are real and then, for no apparent reason, decides to spill his guts. Just as he's giving Larsen the exclusive interview, Larsen reveals he's not a journalist but a music teacher who is very familiar with Znorko's lover. From there, what's left of the plot spins out of control as Schmitt attempts to layer complexity onto cardboard characters.
Director David Zoffoli, who created some sublime moments for Gloucester Stage Company's "Dear Liar" last summer, seems stumped by Schmitt's broad strokes, presented here in a leaden translation from the original French by Jeremy Sams. Volin plays Larsen as such a spineless whiner, it's tempting to hope Znorko might shoot him. Markus plays Znorko like a pretentious buffoon, which has its charm but doesn't provide any insight into the sadness he appears to be masking. When confronted with tragic truths about his life, delivered in a series of increasingly smug revelations by Larsen, Markus communicates Znorko's emotions by contorting his face and buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket.
The best thing about this production is Jenna McFarland Lord's open, airy set, placed on an angle to give the space a sense of depth the play doesn't have. But when we start looking at the set instead of listening to the artificial dialogue, it becomes increasingly clear that the circular designs on the chimney and wall are not examples of spare, Norwegian decor but zeros. Like the play.