Originally created 05/06/04

'Frozen,' still a chilling look at a young girl's disappearance



NEW YORK -- 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.