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Frayn trips up with surplus of improbabilities

Michael Frayn, sometimes called the farceur "by whom all others must be measured," doesn't breast the tape a winner in "Skios," his race-to-the-bottom Greek comedy. Instead he's tripped himself up along the way with a stale plot of mistaken identities festooned with so many improbabilities that it's tough to suspend one's disbelief.

Readers may remember the success of Frayn's play "Noises Off," as well as other nonfiction reviewed here, such as "My Father's Fortune." When Frayn is good, he's very good …

In "My Father's Fortune", Frayn is terrific. But when Frayn's bad, he becomes jokey and trite.

Frayn borrows ideas from Ian McEwan, who wrote a similar, although darker, novel, called "Solar." Frayn's work is not a parody of McEwan's work.

In "Solar," McEwan, crafty topographer of the damned, charted the disintegration of a scientist named Michael Beard, who is beyond his prime, a "tub of lard" in 2000, eating and drinking to excess, and not having a new thought about science in 20 years. What does Beard do for a living? He flies half-drunk to conferences, giving lectures "on the calculations underpinning the Beard-Einstein Conflation" which won him a prize two decades earlier. He's also had 11 affairs in five years, a wearying endurance.

In "Skios", Frayn introduces us to Dr. Normal Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science. Wilfred flies off to the private Greek island of Skios, to give a hackneyed talk called "Innovation and Governance: the Promise of Scientometrics."

Awaiting the academic guru is Nikki Hook, the British personal assistant to Mrs. Fred Toppler, widow of the entrepreneur owner of the foundation. Nikki, nice looking and in her early forties, is dreaming of what might be a horizontal weekend with this man of dash.

Nikki "is discretely British, because Mrs. Toppler, who was American, like the late Mr. Fred, appreciated it. Europeans in general embodied for her the civilized values that the Fred Toppler existed to promote, and the British were Europeans who had the tact and good sense to speak English."

Mistaken identities feed the plot early. By mistake, Nikki picks up a notorious womanizer named Oliver Fox at the Skios airport. She figures that Wilfred's forwarded photo just didn't do him justice.

Fox, also by mistake, has taken Wilfred's bag. The reason? The tag on Oliver's bag, similar to Wilfred's, belongs to one of his paramours who just thrown him out, a woman named Annuka Vos. To complete the insult, Wilfred now has in his possession Annuka Vos's bag with what appear to be transvestite clothing in it.

Oliver is supposed to be picked up by a woman named Georgie, who doesn't show up. They met in a bar and planned to spend a weekend on Skios together.

So Oliver, a chancer with nowhere to go, is up for the adventure of the moment. He tags along with Nikki to see what comes next. About his deceitful behavior of identifying himself as Wilfred, Oliver asks himself, "Did the climber not mind falling or the sailor drowning? They dreaded it! That was the point – the risk!"

Frayn whispers to us that Oliver "was being taken somewhere for some purpose, but of what that purpose was he remained in innocent ignorance." Oliver has become "a living metaphor of the human condition." Well, maybe. More likely he's just a conniving scamp.

Meantime the real Wilfred is furious, fighting the kind of losing battle with airline officials that travelers have become used to. He doesn't know where his bag has gone and he can't remember the name of the place he is to be delivered by cab.

The plot thickens when Spiros, the Greek cabbie who understands little English, delivers Dr. Wilfred and later Georgie Evers to the same seedy condo independent of each other. Wilfred is in a befuddled sleep when, by mistake, he is cuddled by Georgie who has entered his room thinking he is Oliver.

When Dr. Wilfred is awakened by his mistaken bedmate, Georgie screams. She realizes that the fat man with her is not Oliver. she locks herself in the bathroom whimpering until morning, while D. Wilfred is even more confused. All common farcical elements, to be sure.

There are more elements to the story but you get the point. If you need something to read while waiting in the dentist's office, "Skios" is it.

Michael D. Langan is a veteran News reviewer of English and Irish fiction.


By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan Books
257 pages, $25