- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

If a set can move you, then that of "K2" is the Eugene O'Neill of scenery.

Ming Cho Lee's set for the mountain-climbing drama is a higher tech version of the Tony Award-winning peak he created for the Patrick Meyers play at Arena Stage in 1982. It is a beaut — a terrifyingly gorgeous wall of ice and snow, a vertical expanse that demands you crane your neck and peer up at it like a child witnessing a high-wire act at the circus.

The ice sparkles and shines, and lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes has soft rose, golden and blue hues playfully bouncing off its whiteness. From time to time, plumes of mist rise up and circle the peaks. The ice moans and creaks as it cracks and moves like an awakening giant. Nothing about the mountain is even remotely approachable. It is cold in all senses of the word and as uncaring as nature can be.

As magnificent as K2 is — a mountain that is shorter than Mount Everest, but more treacherous — one looks at this impossible facade and wonders why anyone could be seduced to climb it since everything about it practically shrieks, "Do not touch."

Amateur climbers Harold (Rick Holmes) and Taylor (Craig Wallace) are die-hard subscribers to the "Because it's there mind-set." The play opens with them trapped on a narrow ledge, lying covered in snow and gradually stirring awake. Half-frozen and short on supplies and time, the pair must get down the mountain very soon or die.

Harold, the amiably spacey physicist, has a broken leg. Unless a miracle occurs, he is not going to make it. He has altitude sickness and is goofy on oxygen, which director Wendy C. Goldberg has him comically sucking on as if it is a hookah. As played with graceful and philosophical resignation by Mr. Holmes, Harold is such an ephemeral and lovely figure that one expects him to ultimately vanish off the mountain like a wisp of fog.

Taylor, on the other hand, is a pugnacious assistant district attorney, one of those guys who would be unbearable in an office situation but definitely someone you would want on your side in a foxhole, or in this case, on the side of a mountain. Mr. Wallace dynamically portrays him as a bellowing mountain goat, someone who will bully his way back to civilization if need be.

The situation is dire, and one of the discomfiting things about "K2" is that Mr. Meyers has the Odd Couple of the Himalayas indulging in long, schmoozy conversations about women (Harold is an Alan Alda type who finds females a magical mystery; Taylor is in it for the sex), philosophy (to Harold, life is a big old soap bubble; Taylor sees it as a cesspool), and life stories (Harold floated from one experience to another like a dandelion puff; Taylor busted, brawled and clawed his way to the top of the garbage heap).

The chatter is so leisurely one starts to think the two should shut their yaps and get climbing. Then one starts to wonder if these guys first met at base camp. These are awfully elementary conversations for two supposedly dear old friends, not to mention fellow thrill-seekers whose lives depend on each other.

All of this getting-to-know-you dilutes the tension of "K2." Since the men's stories are shallow and unconvincing — and the outcome is pretty much established from the beginning — the audience is not pulled into the drama of the play. But audience members are mesmerized by the image of this mountain, and how these two men are overwhelmed by a landscape that could crush them at any minute.

"K2" is less than two hours long, and that is a lot of time to stare in awe at a foam mountain. Perhaps the play is too corny to approach the raw power of the setting. As it stands, it is about as affecting as a light-beer commercial.{*}{*}WHAT: "K2"WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Dec. 31, Jan. 7 and Jan. 28; and noon Jan. 10, 17 and 23. Through Jan. 28WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SWTICKETS: $27 to $45PHONE: 202/488-3300

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