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Theater Review

An Exquisite Encounter With 'The Unexpected Man'

With luminous performances, Yasmina Reza's play is perfectly situated off-Broadway.

November 01, 2000|LINDA WINER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — Ever since Yasmina Reza's "The Unexpected Man" opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1998, New York theatergoers have been teased and tantalized by promises to import the two-character encounter by the creator of "Art." In every plan, Eileen Atkins was scheduled to play the Woman, a performance for which this consummate--not to mention irresistible--actress won the Olivier Award. But the other role, named with alarming predictability the Man, went from Michael Gambon to a dispiriting succession of lesser enticements.

By the time "The Unexpected Man" finally opened Tuesday night, the cast had been elevated to its former stature with Atkins and Alan Bates. Instead of a major Broadway house for a prestige-star play by the author of one of the few quasi-serious nonmusical hits in recent memory, however, the work has been quietly booked into off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre. Why, we wondered, were producers hedging their bets with a smaller, less risky venue? Could something be not quite right with this long-awaited enticement? If not, what took so long?

We are beyond pleased to report that, moments into the 75 heart-stopping minutes of "The Unexpected Man," such questions seem irrelevant. What an exquisite brief encounter this is. In Matthew Warchus' flinty and steadily probing production, the piece is also more challenging, more subtle and more satisfying than "Art," that crafty little dazzler that, despite the title and same director, seemed more like theatrical brain candy from a gourmet shop.

But we do understand now the decision to go off-Broadway. Despite the luminous performances by Atkins and Bates, "The Unexpected Man" occupies more rarefied air than was required by "Art." This play, produced in her native Paris in 1995 and translated with Pinteresque nuance by Christopher Hampton, is intimate yet deeply stirring, dry but surprisingly juicy, unsentimental yet ultimately so full of suspense and emotional payoff that we feel giddy from the release.

At the surface, this is a strangers-in-a-train play. Instead of chatting to one another, however, Atkins' Woman and Bates' Man spend an almost agonizing amount of the trip from Paris to Frankfort engrossed in their own internal monologues. Although the technique and the self-consciously neutral names threaten at first to be unbearably pretentious, Reza and her cast quickly let us know that these are people whose random thoughts have the richness and unpredictability of unexpected life.

Atkins, who has been required local viewing since her one-woman Virginia Woolf evening opened in New York in 1989, does not speak for what feels like a long time. We are first hearing from Bates' Man, a famous novelist whose ramblings about slights against him mark him as a windbag. He talks about his own bruised being, while we see Atkins' crisp, deceptively no-nonsense profile in the reflection of Mark Thompson's elegant, eerily dreamlike suggestion of train seats hovering above tracks.

Both strangers talk silently about themselves, but The Woman is silently addressing him. By a coincidence even she acknowledges as marvelous, she happens to be seated across from the author whose work has been a part of her inner life, a man she seems to know better than her own friends. "I have spent my life with you, Mr. Parsky," she says as if the voice in her head were in his, too. "I talk to you secretly. Secretly, I tell you everything I can never tell you." In fact, we sense that she knows him better than he knows himself, or certainly treasures a better part of him than even he remembers.

Frequently, his monologues are hinged on his vanity over having turned bitter. "The curl of my lip is bitter," he says, almost as if he wants us to reassure him that it is not. How delicious that the person who can do so with the best evidence is sitting across from him, afraid to take his latest, called "The Unexpected Man," from her handbag and begin to read.

Warchus, the Englishman who recently directed Broadway's smash "True West" and will stage the wildly anticipated revival of "Follies" this spring, knows how to wring entertainment from Reza's most oblique or blunt sentences. With Thompson's glassy set shimmering underfoot, the actors often sit, sometimes walk as they talk, daring one another to catch an eye or acknowledge the potential significance of the situation. The woman says that this ostensibly bitter man's joyful work has given her "a nostalgia for what's never taken place--a nostalgia for what might happen." We know the feeling, and rejoice with her.


* "The Unexpected Man," Promenade Theatre, Broadway at 76th Street, New York. Telecharge: (800) 432-7250.

Linda Winer is chief theater critic at Newsday.

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