The Unexpected Man by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Seth Gordon. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
". . .A mish-mash of contradictions. . ."
JOhn Woodson as Man; photo: Enrico Spada
An un-named Man (whose name is Paul Parsky) and an un-named Woman (who refers to herself as Martha) share a compartment on a train to Frankfurt. He is "bitter" and she is not; he is cynical and she is analytical.We know, both initially and eventually, a great deal about him and virtually nothing about her. In the 76 minutes that follow our first seeing them in their train compartment they enjoy multiple relationships with one another.
Yes, this is an intellectual exercise disguised as a play. The two speak incessantly in almost exclusively internal monologues. He is so rapt up in his own self-indulgent thoughts that he barely notices her; his concentration is on himself, his present state, his future possibilities, his fantasy life and his real one. She is overcome at being in close proximity to him, a man whose work she loves and admires, a man about whom she has entertained more than one fantasy. Clearly the concentration is on him.
Reza, author of "Art" and "God of Carnage" is taking liberties here and playing a game of sorts. It's not just the language and the focus of the play that make it a challenge for her, it is as though she is trying to see how long she can put off the reality of two strangers on a train refusing to engage in conversation. They create three different relationships in the course of the play, as I indicated above. The first is a determined seperation of identities: he will remain focused on himself alone and so will she. The second is a fantasy relationship in which he imagines her real life outside the railroad car and she imagines her make-believe life engaging with this man. They ultimately use this relationship to disguise the truths of their inter-personal knowledge. The third relationship is the one they forge by finally speaking out loud. Reza does a terrific job of keeping us involved with these people through all three types of social games. In the end, if we've been paying attention, we find there are no surprises here but we've had a good time getting to the predictable ending.
The Man is played by John Woodson. The actor, playing a famous novelist, has a fabulous voice, one that spouting the words of Reza in Christopher Hampton's wonderful translation creates an image far more handsome than the man himself. If anything Woodson is a plain man with a middle-aged body and face. It is his voice, dark and powerful and able to create a facade that makes his character come to life and take the stage. He makes his most bitter statements palpable with that voice. He gives to his silliest moments a clarity and believeable essence through the sound of his voice. This may seem like over-statement but in this actor Shakespeare and Company's production of this play has the voice for which the role was created. With every cynical utterance, the Man takes on new emotional depths, even when he utters things such as "you manufacture yourself," which darkens the already near fatal mood of the monologue.
She has a cheeriness in the hands of Corinna May, a very familiar actress in the Shakespeare and Company world, that is almost saccharine. Most of her internal time is spent concerned with how she will appear to this man who takes no notice of her. Woman has the Man's latest novel in her bag and she is reluctant to take it out and read it in front of him for fear that he will get the wrong impression whatever that might be. This bit of semi-illogic dominates her thought process for a very long while. May uses this limitation to express the same set of thoughts in so many different ways that her long speeches are poignant and heart-felt and a soothing seething compliment to his more turgid speeches. Hers would be the performance to witness if Woodson didn't have to take a different turn finally and once he does, the "play" is on.
Corinna May as Woman; photo: Enrico Spada
JOhn Woodson and Corinna May; photo: Enrico Spada
Director Seth Gordon has to keep these two in their train seats throughout the play which makes a very talky piece without dialogue into a stagnant stage work. He has done some very engaging things with his actors, giving them a wide scope of movement and motion without giving them the stage. Instead he has created with set designer John McDermott and lighting designer Robyn Warfield a stage that has dynamics of its own. Rather then allowing the actors to move, this team has given the play motion and change through the use of a turntable unit that provides, with the sound work of Amy Altadonna, the long train journey. It is a clever solution to the problem of stagnation and it keeps our interest as thoughts are given their time to be created.
The dialogue scene that concludes the play continues the second relationship until the third and final one replaces it handsomely. Reza is a very interesting writer and here she has the help of two very talented actors to bring life to her characters. Dressed handsomely by costume designer Stella Schwartz who has secretly given the two a common indulgence (Ferrogamo shoes) they complete the trip from alienation to friendship in less time than it would take to get to their European destination. Their simple elegance marks them for a relationship and we have the ultimate joy in imagining what that might be once the train arrives at its destination which is not theirs, but only their stopping point.
Shakespeare and Company is making a season of two-person intellectual exercises this season. This one is difficult but more than acceptable by the end and it has a lot of superb talent holding it together. There are laughs and there are cries of exultation: "Oh God, have I ever once prayed to you without asking for a favor?" When the play is done, you can relax again having done all you could possibly do to resolve the situation that gives us more and more insight into the effect of literary genius on both its admirer and its possessor. Drink some wine. I did.
The Unexpected Man plays at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through September 6. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.