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Grandeur and goop on K2

As a play 'K2' is wordy and often tedious, but as a show it truly soars

In the play K2, which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York in late March, two men are trapped on a tiny shelf of ice 27,000 feet up on K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. They're in desperate straits. One man has a severely injured leg and the other has lost a vitally important length of climbing rope. They face an impossible task in getting themselves down off the mountain.

And that's about it for plot. The entire play takes place on the ice shelf and in its environs, and the two climbers are the entire cast. They do a lot of talking. Taylor, the one who doesn't have the bad leg, is vigorous and upbeat as he tries to figure a way out of the mess. The injured Harold is cynical and fatalistic, scoffing at what he feels is Taylor's Pollyanna attitude. They experience setbacks, including being in the path of an avalanche, and their roles change. Taylor becomes pessimistic and wants to give up, but Harold becomes optimistic—for Taylor. Harold says there's no way toe can get off the mountain, but Taylor can save himself. Taylor says no; he's going to stay there and die, too. Harold persuades him to leave because he wants Taylor to survive so that he can hug Harold's wife and baby for him. Taylor says O.K. and goes off down the the mountain.

Patrick Meyers, who wrote K2, sees a Message in all this. The play is about life: We're all living on a shelf, death is inevitable, we must try to survive. He has given his climbers a lot of foul, funny, irreverent lines, but he has interlarded them—I use that verb carefully—with social commentary and deep-dish philosophy. Harold wanders two or three times—figuratively, of course; he can't move with that severely injured leg—from death's door to the lecture platform, where he delivers interminable speeches on cosmic truths. To make sure the audience understands what he's driving at, the author has Harold explain, "Mountains are metaphors."

Surely, Harold is one of the most unrelenting bores ever to appear on a stage. Even Taylor loses his temper with him at one point and physically assaults him, injured leg or not. But Taylor really likes Harold. When Taylor finally is about to disappear down the mountain, he looks at Harold and says, "I love you." And Harold says, "I love you, too."

Mountaineering does that to writers. It has inspired more goopy prose than almost any other of man's adventurous endeavors. But in this play it doesn't matter too much. Overcoming the shallowness of the writing is the production itself, which is terrific. In essence K2 is an old-fashioned melodrama, the kind of spectacle, as one New York drama critic said, that must have attracted people to the theater in the old days. When the curtain goes up there's no stage, just the grim, rutted, almost perpendicular side of a mountain. Designed by Ming Cho Lee, it is simply amazing; audiences break into applause at the sight of it. The plot is elementary—two men in terrible danger—but strong, and the actors are fine, even Jay Patterson, who has to cope with Harold's balderdash.

Jeffrey DeMunn as Taylor has to climb the mountain in an effort to retrieve the lost rope, and he does it the way a genuine climber might, whacking an ax into the ice—actually a very tough Styrofoam—digging his spiked boots into it and slowly working his way up the vertical wall. (The holes he gouges are filled in after each performance with freshly sprayed Styrofoam.) DeMunn does this three times, climbing out of sight before descending again to the shelf, an agile and courageous actor clinging to a perpendicular cliff that could give way at any time and land him flat on his back 20 feet below. At one frightening moment he slips, cries out in terror and plummets down the side of the cliff to end up hanging in mid-air at the end of his rope. It may be a little hokey, but as a theatrical device it's remarkably effective. Members of the audience gasp, and then they sigh with relief when DeMunn finally makes his way back to the safety of the tiny shelf. The avalanche, too, is a stunning moment: a great rumbling, building noise and then a sudden roar of snow pouring down the mountain onto the actors and the shelf.

In brief, it's not much of a play, but it's a great show.