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A CurtainUp Los AngelesReview
The Unexpected Man
The beauty of Yasmina Reza's play The Unexpected Man is the skill with which she builds and reveals her characters before they are allowed to speak to each other. That takes guts.
A man and a woman in their twilight years, strangers on a train, he a famous author, she an aficionada who has his latest book entitled The Unexpected Man in her bag, ruminate in separate monologues for an hour of Reza's 90-minute play.
The author, played by Christopher Lloyd who bears an uncanny resemblance to playwright Arthur Miller, begins bitter. He rails against the critics, the prospective son-in-law he's acquiring, the inadequacy of sexual relations in which the less he knows the woman the better.
The woman, played by Holland Taylor, displays her elegant profile and expresses her gratitude for wearing her new suit and finding a good hairdresser before she boarded this train. She has recently ended a long-time relationship with a man who leaves her for another woman, seems to have a distant relationship with her two children, but has found companionship and guidance from the books of the remote man who now sits across from her on the train from Paris to Frankfurt.
"I'm the captain of a lost ship," sighs the man. The woman muses about the human capacity to desire so much and, in the end, to feel so little. Although the writer and his critics consider his work vitriolic, the woman sees that very anger as full of life and a savage joy. She may admire that attribute because being civil, she considers, is perhaps where she's gone wrong. Although the writer is accused of having no world view, she disagrees, finding proof in his very negativity. Even the writer's allergy to nuance, she avers, is a view of the world.
Far too shy to fetch out the book she has in her bag, she imagines different approaches. One, she envisions, would provoke him to a great burst of laughter. The writer, also, is obsessed with laughter. He compares the unaffected laugh to the deathly In Laugh of theatre-goers who like to show off their erudition and with-it-ness.
The writer has not been wholly insensitive to the woman. He fantasizes about her destination. Does she have a husband or a lover? A lover, he decides. Finally he works up the nerve to ask her if he might open the window. She stammers "yes."
In a wonderful interior monologue reminiscent in a less physical way of James Joyce's Molly Bloom, she says she would say yes to whatever his unspoken question was, just as she said yes when he rested his eyes on her and spoke of fresh air. The metaphor is redolent of what he has brought to her life.
At last, what we have been waiting for happens. Perhaps emboldened by his breaking the ice, perhaps desperate at the approach of Frankfurt, she fetches his book from her bag and begins to read. "A subject for a short story", whispers the writer, in a nod to Chekhov's The Sea Gull.
Few writers offer as much as Reza in the way of philosophy and characterization before dialogue is allowed to begin. Some American viewers have found the play undramatic and slow. Those who remember the French fondness for monologues as demonstrated by such writers as Racine and have the patience for Reza's gift of discovery will find their 90-minutes packed with suspense, delights and rewards.
Lloyd makes a gruff rambunctious writer, not going gentle into a good night, and Taylor matches him with her golden melancholy and late-discovered courage. Maria Mileaf's vivid direction is complemented by Mark Thompson's train set and elegant costumes and sound by Mic Pool and David Bullard.