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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
The Unexpected Man which opened just a year after Art, but it wasn't as universally successful. That's not to say it was a flop. Critics liked the clever conceit of two Parisians — a famous male novelist and an admiring female reader — happening to be in the same compartment of a Frankfurt bound train and interacting indirectly through alternating stream of consciousness monologues.
The critics and audiences smitten with Reza's urbane, high-brow but middle-brow accessible style liked the way these individual monologues coalesced thematically. They found enough suspense as to whether this man and woman would actually connect to accept a certain amount of structural stasis. That said, however, the main praises for both the London and New York productions were for the actors — Eileen Atkins on both sides of the pond, Michael Gambon (often referred to as "The Great Gambon") in London, and Alan Bates in New York.
But while less stellar casts did not prevent Art from receiving a record-setting number of productions world-wide, The Unexpected Man's being more a philosophical rumination than interactive crowd pleaser, is considered a somewhat iffy ticket seller, and a challenge for actors without the prestige of the originals.
It is to beat that challenge that Director Seth Gordon opted to make his Shakespeare & Company directing debut with this Reza rarity. With Corinna May to play the woman finding herself face to face with the author of the book in her purse from which the play takes its title, Gordon has the benefit of an actress who's been a star performer with the Company for many years. As the self-absorbed author he's chosen John Woodson, a newcomer to me as well as the company.
Ms. May brings her familiar charm, good looks and ability to tap into the funny and sad side of her character. humor and poignancy of a role. Her non-vebal acting is as intriguing to watch as is listening to what she says. Woodson delivers the author's both comic and poignant ruminations with a voice that reflects his experience with Shakespeare characters. He segues easily between things cultural and coarse. He got an especially big laugh with his "Ex-Lax" discourse in the latter mode ("I should go back on Ex-Lax. I was happy on Ex-Lax. Ex-Lax suited me").”
There is some inevitable stasis in a play that reveals its characters' personas and concerns through rather rigidly organized alternative interior monologues. However, if you park your expectations of more traditionally active story telling at the entrance to the theater, you'll find some unexpected pleasures in their inter-linked reflections on life's disappointments, loneliness, missed and possible connections . The woman's quandary about pulling out her copy of The Unexpected Man amusingly reveal her sense of Parisian decorum, and also her fear that he may not live up to her overly romantic fantasies about him (as she puts it "my desires have always outstripped what actually happened"). He segues from a lengthy discourse on everything he finds bitter, to amusingly becoming more aware of his attractive compartment mate and wondering why she's not reading anything. Whereas Reza's all-male Art chronicled three friendships coming apart, The Unexpected Man does a turnabout of this, by having two strangers connect and form a bond. I'll leave it to you to find out if it ever materializes into real interaction.
As a rule the Tina Packer stage has actors filling not only the stage but navigating the aisles and even the side balconies. But as the actors is filled with numerous performers, so it's this production is a rarity in another sense. To make the two-character set-up work visually effective, much credit to John McDermott's whose simple rotating set works beautifully for this venue's three-sided thrust configuration. Bravo to for Stella Schwartz's chic white suite and red shoes for May, and Amy Altadonna's sound and Robyn Warfield's lighting.
Hopefully, Shakespeare & Company will give Berkshire audiences a chance to see Reza's more crowd pleasing but also thematically meaningful Art in a not too distant future. With that in mind, here's my dream cast for its three friends:
1. John Douglas Thompson who'll soon alternate with this play and Comedy of Errors in Red Velvet
2. Interim co-artistic director Jonathn Croy
.3. Interim co-artistic director Ariel Bock's spouse, Jonathan Epstein.
For more about the cast and details of previous productions see our reviews of the London and Off-Broadway productions here.