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Taciturn Strangers on a Train

Two actors find it as hard to connect as their characters do in 'Unexpected Man.'

September 16, 2001|HUGH HART | Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Chris is a laconic fellow," says Holland Taylor. She's describing the lantern-jawed guy in jeans and gym shoes sitting next to her in a conference room at the Geffen Playhouse. It's Christopher Lloyd. He listens intently as Taylor talks about their new two-person play, "The Unexpected Man," which opens Wednesday. "This play has a whole new set of rules," Taylor says. "I'm used to the juice coming from working with my partner. I'm used to that being the fuel; with that, you combust. And in this play, each of us has to make our own little combustion engine."

Lloyd plays a famous author, lost in thought, who shares a compartment with Taylor's equally introspective character during a six-hour train trip from Paris to Frankfurt. It's about 70 minutes into "The Unexpected Man" before the characters speak to each other and, during a recent interview, a good 20 minutes before Lloyd himself says a word.

"The Unexpected Man," written by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, offers Lloyd and Taylor loads of lines in the form of alternating monologues. For the play to work, these actors must ignore each other. "When he's speaking, it's his inner thoughts, so that's nothing I would be aware of," Taylor explains. "You can't incorporate listening into it. That would be very destructive to do. You're having a dialogue with yourself, which takes tremendous energy. Once in a while at rehearsal, I've sat to the side and watched Christopher do something [for the first time] because I hadn't been paying attention to it, because I've been trying, mostly been thinking about what I was going to say next."

Lloyd nods.

"That's the whole thing about this play, it makes its own rules," Taylor continues. "You usually rely on dialogue, where you're firing off of each other, but here, you have to be firing off of yourself. It's rather exhausting. Usually, the duality, the exchange with another actor creates energy and heat. Here, I have to be lighting my own fire. Sometimes my coals are, eeiiayy, this is not catching," she laughs.

Taylor, dressed in cream pants and blouse, flops her leg over the arm of a chair, noshes on a bagel, and says, "I remember in rehearsal, the first time we got to our dialogue sections, I was like a spiritual invalid--I fell on Chris like somebody had saved me from an island, fell on his bosom like a starving person who'd been abandoned at sea. Because it's hard to be out there [onstage] on your own."

Taylor studied acting with Stella Adler in New York, where she worked as a stage performer for 15 years. She appeared with playwright A.R. Gurney in the very first performance of his two-person drama "Love Letters."

"There's a difference," Taylor says. "In 'Letters,' again, you're sitting next to the person. But it's like a billiard shot: You hit the ball to the audience and it bounces back to the recipient of the letter, so it's still much more connected than this thing."

After moving to Los Angeles, Taylor, 57, found work in dozens of made-for-television movies and series. In 1998, she was cast as the randy, cranky Judge Kittleson on "The Practice," for which she earned an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in 1999 and 2000. "I'm quite certain that I owe this part in a way to David Kelley for giving me that extraordinary role on 'The Practice,' " Taylor says, "because I think that show very much changed people's perceptions of the kind of character I would play well or enjoy playing and find natural to play. I got to ride on the coattails of the success of that character, and I'm sure that's why I'm in the position of playing in a two-hander at the Geffen with Christopher Lloyd. Praise de Lord."

A television role also gave Lloyd's career a big boost. He, of course, became famous as the acid casualty Reverend Jim on "Taxi," earning consecutive outstanding supporting actor Emmy awards in 1982 and 1983. Lloyd's gallery of eccentrics actually began a few years earlier when he played a lunatic in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and continued with his mad scientist Doc Brown in the "Back to the Future" trilogy starting in 1985.

"The Unexpected Man" is no comedy. The play recalls instead the serious dramatic material Lloyd performed in the early '70s. He appeared with Meryl Streep at Yale Repertory Theatre; performed off-Broadway in David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room"; co-starred with Christopher Walken in "Macbeth" at the New York Shakespeare Festival; and earned 1973 Obie and Drama Desk Awards when he starred at Brooklyn's Chelsea Theater Center in "Kaspar," an avant-garde play by Peter Handke about an animal-like 16-year-old gradually trying to become human.

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