Theatre Mirror Reviews - "An Unexpected Man"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Joe Coyne

"An Unexpected Man"

Playwright Yasmina Reza
Translator Christopher Hampton
Director Daniel Gisdron

Scenic Design Byrnna Bloomfield
Costume Design Gail Astrid Buckley
Sound Design and Music Dewey Dellay
Production Stage Manager Amy Lee


The Man ... Steve McConnell
The Women ... Nancy E. Carroll

At times you wonder if the two characters will ever speak to each other: for the balance of the time, you don't really care. Their alternating monologues (Mr. McConnell portraying The Man sees the bulk of his initial lines as soliloquies) are crammed with self absorbed interior thoughts of the, "enough about me, what do I think about me watching you, watching me" variety. And watching it is. There is little other than belabored examination of their self thoughts. Like the master of the revels announcing the Mechanicals in "A Midsummer-Night's Dream", this play is brief, but in its briefness, it is too long. The acting alone saves it from the tedious category. Ms Reza has stated she is not found of intermissions. With so little to say, it is a wise choice.

Her main fame claim is her well received play, "Art" which has been translated into 35 languages. "Art" tied with "Wit" as the most produced play in 1999. American English has not been one of the languages it has been translated into and her English translator is Britisher Christopher Hampton who sets two Brits on the train compartment for the six hour ride from Paris to Frankfurt. We are not assisted in understanding most of the references: they are not esoteric, they just remain in French, converting the flavor of the play into an high intellectual endeavor. This removes us from being a potential participant and confirms that we are just watching others: this is not a situation we might experience. By removing us "from" the scene to merely "in front" of the scene, it puts us firmly in a passive / observer role. It alters the experience but this may be what the playwright intended. Then again it may not.

Yasmina Reza is on a streak with all four of her plays receiving accolades and praise. "The Unexpected Man" first produced in France in 1995 went on to London with the Royal Shakespeare Company and then to New York with a 66 year old Alan Bates in the role.

Not to explode the plot but it is an hour and a half of alternating thought considerations of a man and a women whom we must work at knowing. He is a writer of middling novels better known as an author, she a reader of the same middling novels. For reasons unknown to us or to the women, she has found his novels of extreme interest. During the trip the two may talk to each other, they may not talk to each other. This is the height of the theatrical excitement. Well into the play I lost interest in trying to know them as characters and heard instead mouthpieces for a few well chosen thoughts.

When each character goes off into some area (short of reflecting), they render interesting ideas: "nostalgia for what has never taken place", "why does sadness capture your by surprise", "who is the man I hope to become". Deep ideas and for the audience to process them, in need of pausings. There was no time for thinking about, just time enough for listening to. These ideas are not numerous and are not integral to the story. They should best be left in a novel where it is at the reader's option when to turn the page.

Would you want to have dinner with either of them, no, no. no, no. Their inabilities abound. They do so well on their level of fantasy and imagination, touches of reality would only interfere. They actually believe they know what others are thinking and they make decisions on this these airdriven beliefs: life altering decisions. If it were only on the train ride from Paris to Frankfurt it would be one thing, "travelexia". But this must be how each of them lives their lives, in a created vacuum: of "life" reaching out to others only with an exhausted interior mind, discussing life only with themselves, pretending they have wannabe lovers and friends. They create a persona they can crawl into when the need arises. Even the persona does not deserve a lunch.

Mr. McConnell strived to capture elements of the writer pondering his thoughts with much success. In the talkback after the show, Mr. McConnell exposed more interesting ideas than we had been listening to as Ms Reza's words. With an occasional lapse into a school girl infatuation, Ms Carroll kept back enough of her interior reasoning for her fondness for the writer to have me wonder what it is that she thought she saw. Again it was the words that got in the way.

Life is something that embroiled these characters and it is a life from the past, of the past. Their brains work and their language is too crisp and assured, but oh the self absorption and self machinations. It was too many verbalisms for the actors to fight through.

The minimal set was limited to two chairs and a streamlined "train" window which with the sound completed the mind creation of the compartment. The lighting on Mr. McConnell worked to give him a few needed years of age. The London Times has used "the big ide

a lite" when talking of Reza. Here it is "the little idea liter". If "Art" is about friendship, "Unexpected Man" is about avoiding friendship, avoiding real.

Joe Coyne

"The Unexpected Man" (April 26 - May 19)
Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide