In print and in person, New York colleagues of mine have referred, variously, to Yasmina Reza's "The Unexpected Man" as "exquisite," "unendurable," "special," and "an evasion of dramatic responsibility." Surely a play must be doing something right to provoke such a range of responses. Surely it must.
You can answer that one for yourself if you like, by way of a most attractive Geffen Playhouse production staged by Maria Mileaf.
At the Geffen, the two-character, 85-minute play actually has four stars, not two. It stars Holland Taylor, Holland Taylor's air of calculatedly disinterested hauteur, Christopher Lloyd, and Christopher Lloyd's way of delivering certain lines as though he were singing them, akin to Groucho Marx's O'Neill soliloquy in "Animal Crackers." \o7 Strange how the wind blows tonight....
\f7 Reza soliloquizes like a fiend in "The Unexpected Man."
The play received its English-language premiere in London in 1998 and had an off-Broadway run last year.
"The Unexpected Man" brings together a famous novelist and a fan of same in a compartment on a Paris train bound for Frankfurt. They're together, yet until very near the end, they're lost in separate spheres of thought, of subconscious attraction and remembrances of things past.
The writer (Lloyd) is a charismatically soul-sick sort who cultivates a kind of showy bitterness. "The curl of my lip is bitter," he announces to himself early on.
He wrestles with his little demons--his daughter's unsavory choice of husband, his critics--while the woman across the way (Taylor) looks out the window. "Strange this woman never reads anything ... not even a spot of \o7 Marie Claire.\f7 "
The writer's latest novel is "The Unexpected Man." The woman has a copy of it in her handbag. She knows the author sits before her. She wants to meet him. Should she take the book out? Might that spark a connection, a flirtation--an "adventure," as she puts it?
Reza's musings operate on twin tracks of suspense, or something like it: We wait to see if something, or nothing, comes of this meeting. And we wait to see what happens when the characters' interior monologues give way to actual interaction.
Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon originated the roles in London; Atkins and Alan Bates did them in New York.
Taylor's characterization--the woman's name is Martha--is thoroughly, wittily detailed on its own terms. There's a weary sensuality underneath this woman's skin, crisscrossing lines of regret and amusement, of vanity and insecurity.
The piggish novelist's vanities and insecurities are less attractive by design. Lloyd doesn't play for anyone's sympathy, which is a start. Yet he goes only so far with it; he tends to narrate Reza's long patches of self-involvement, to warble them, up and down his impressive, distinctive vocal range, without revealing much.
How much is there to reveal here, in the end? Reza's play is shallow down deep. So was "Art," which I enjoyed tremendously.
Reza and Christopher Hampton, who has done wonderful translations of her plays in English, found themselves stuck while working on "The Unexpected Man" together.
As a break from that play, Reza wrote "Art," which breathes easily. It's a deft, sharp and buoyant diversion, and I never quite understood some folks' hostility toward it (even with a miscast Alan Alda).
In contrast, "The Unexpected Man" feels like work, even though it's nominally a more personal and intimate piece. Its musings on life and loss and chance offer shards of feeling here and there, a hint or two of lives lived. But in general, the musings are general. The characters remain moderately intriguing ciphers.
Mileaf's staging is shrewdly judged in its rhythms; the design work, a replica of the off-Broadway staging, is top-flight.
Mark Thompson's coolly abstracted train compartment reveals what's underneath the conversation, literally: We see gravel and a bit of track beneath a plexiglass-type surface. Hugh Vanstone's lighting scheme shakes up the material in tune with the sound design by Mic Pool and David Bullard.
It's all very artfully crafted and very gassy. At one point, the Kundera-like novelist goes on about the virtues of boulevard comedy, and he may as well be talking about "Art" (Reza's largest success internationally) or "The Unexpected Man."
The latter has seduced many a theatergoer and will do so here. I speak only for my own un-seduced self. Even actors as skilled as Taylor and Lloyd couldn't take my mind off the larger cosmic question: Isn't there anyone \o7 else\f7 thinking out loud on this train?
"The Unexpected Man," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 21. $30-$46. (310) 208-5454 or (213) 365-3500. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Christopher Lloyd: The Man
Holland Taylor: The Woman
Written by Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Maria Mileaf. Scenic and costume design by Mark Thompson. Lighting by Hugh Vanstone. Sound by Mic Pool and David Bullard. Original music by Gary Yershon. Production stage manager Alice Elliott Smith.