The "Arctic frozen sea" of a pedophile's mind lies at the chilly center of Bryony Lavery's smart, mesmerizing Frozen. This is a gritty story full of a dreadfulness that's impossible to look away from. The play about a child killer and his victim's raging mother was so affecting when it opened on Broadway in 2004, it was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. In an interesting twist, Lavery and her script were the focus of a juicy controversy when it was discovered that she'd lifted passages from an article that Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point fame) wrote for The New Yorker about Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist who focuses on serial killers. Lawsuits were threatened, but neither Gladwell not Lewis ended up filing against Lavery. All the hoopla has turned Frozen into a favorite among regional theaters; it's a bit surprising that it's taken so long for the drama to open here. Thanks to Theater LaB and director Ed Muth, Houstonians can now see what the excitement is all about.

Told in a series of short monologues and scenes, the three-character story takes place over several decades, beginning with the abduction of a ten-year-old English child named Rhona. Sent to her grandmother's one fine afternoon, the innocent child never returns. Her loss sends her mother Nancy (Andrea Hyde) into years of hand-wringing hope followed by seemingly endless grief. Nancy is so consumed by her child's disappearance, she neglects her marriage and her other child. And when Rhona's small bones are finally uncovered, this grieving mother turns into an iceberg of rage, frozen in her loss, unable to make any emotional progress toward a life not defined completely by despair.

On the other side of the stage sits Ralph (Alan Heckner), a walking, talking nightmare. But he is fascinating. He describes his encounters with children on the street as if he were some sexy rogue stalking a singles' bar, able to lure prepubescent girls with a lovely, low "hello." He works out and has colorful tattoos — and the sort of childhood that might beat anyone into the distorted shape of a monster.

Finally, there's Agnetha (Julie Boneau), an American psychiatrist who specializes in serial killers. She flies to England to speak on the neurological differences between sociopaths who kill and rape and the rest of us. She argues that the brains of serial killers are wired differently from everyone else's, the result of head injuries and psychological abuse. They're not evil, they're ill; and difficult as it may be, they deserve some compassion. Her speeches are braided together with scenes in which she interviews Ralph about his own life — a life that ends up supporting all of Agnetha's ideas.

It's the tension between Nancy's fiery grief and Agnetha's thesis that makes this play so powerful. Nancy wants Ralph to die; she wants to watch him suffer as her own daughter suffered. But we also get to know Ralph. As misshapen as he may be, he is still human, and it's hard not to feel some compassion despite our horror.

Moreover, we also understand that Nancy's desire for revenge isn't helping her emotionally. And when her other daughter, now grown up, suggests that Nancy work toward forgiving Ralph, the story begins a slow movement toward an ending that's strangely uplifting, despite the dark subject matter.

This play should not work. The majority of it is told in brief monologues rather than scenes between characters — in other words, there's lots of telling and very little drama. But Lavery's unorthodox script is an anomaly. The characters are compelling enough, the information interesting enough and the story is dark enough to keep the audience hooked. Even Theater LaB's rickety production is worthwhile.

Technically, this production is a mess. The minimal set pieces (mostly a few chairs and a table) have no cohesion or elegance. The strangely out-of-sync sound effects and music often disrupt rather than add to the flow of the story. Muth's staging tends to confine the characters to small areas of light, which actually makes parts of the play hard to see from some spots in the audience. And in one scene, he has an actor questioning the audience, a choice so confusing to the opening night crowd that they started speaking back to the actor. It was hard to know whether or not these moments were intentional on the director's part, but they ended up being awkward and feeling like mistakes.

Even some of the performances feel a little off. Boneau's psychiatrist is oddly informal. And though she's interesting to watch, she doesn't come off as old enough or competent enough to be a leader in her field. Hyde's grieving mother is beautiful and serious, but the actress doesn't bring much emotional nuance to the character's complex range of experience. Only Heckner's Ralph is both completely believable and full of surprising emotional changes. He fills up the stage with an animal force that is compelling — even chilling. For all this production's faults, Frozen is the hottest show of the year.

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Lee Williams