A middle-aged man and woman are strangers seated across the aisle from each other on a train. The man is Paul Parsky, famed novelist and author of a The Unexpected Man, among numerous other titles. The woman is Martha, a Parsky admirer who just happens to be halfway through reading The Unexpected Man, a copy of which she carries in her purse. For the next ninety minutes or so, Paul and Martha reveal their thoughts in a series of inner monologs before finally engaging in brief conversation.
If the above sounds hardly the recipe for gripping theater, then sadly there is no need to think again. Despite the presence of the luminous Judy Jean Berns, Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man proves an unexpectedly dull hour and a half of rambling monologs, precisely the kind of “Art” Reza made the object of ridicule in her sparkling comedy of the same name.
To do The Unexpected Man justice, it should be noted that the New Yorker described it as “artful,” the New York Daily News called Reza’s writing “subtle” and “touching,” and the New York Post dubbed it “an elegant, witty little play.” StageSceneLA found it mostly long-winded and boring.
Monologs can make for a gripping play. Bryony Lavery’s Frozen is just such a drama, composed almost entirely of monologs delivered by the mother of a 10-year-old murder victim, the child molester who killed her daughter, and the doctor studying the case.
In The Unexpected Man, the monologs are about Parsky’s friend Yuri and his much younger Japanese girlfriend, Martha’s impressions of Parsky from the books of his that she has read, Parsky’s constipation, Martha’s late friend Serge and another, called Georges, among other less than enthralling topics.
Here’s some of what Martha has to say about Parsky, though not to his face: “I’ve never found anything in any of your books which doesn’t express in a completely personal way your view of the world. Even your energy is a view of the world. Your allergy to nuance is a view of the world. Your disinclination to do the sensible thing is a view of the world. Reading your interview, I finally grasped something unexpected: your fear of being understood, Mr. Parsky.”
Even Judy Jean Berns, whose work in Kimberly Akimbo and The Busy World Is Hushed proved her to be one of L.A.’s finest stage actresses, can’t breathe much life into Reza’s words, as translated by Christopher Hampton, though interest perks up whenever it’s Martha’s turn to speak. Berns’ costar Ronald Hunter is undoubtedly a fine, experienced actor, but his dour scowl makes spending time with Parsky about as uninviting as Martha’s descriptions of his books make his writing out to be.
Director David Robinson does his best with the material, and Matt Richter’s lighting is effective and striking from the get-go. Projections above the train compartment have been artfully selected to reflect the topics the two characters are discussing, and there’s an excellent sound design by David Pascucci. Chrystal Lee’s set is a curious one, though, suggesting that perhaps the man and woman aren’t traveling on the same train after all. Robinson has added a dance sequence, not in Reza’s script, also strangely implying that the man and woman’s meeting may never actually have taken place.
The Unexpected Man hasn’t turned me off to Reza’s work. I’d love to see Art again, and I excitedly await her most recent Broadway hit The God Of Carnage’s Los Angeles premiere, whenever that takes place. The production hasn’t made me any less a fan of Judy Jean Berns. I only wish that Reza and Berns together had made for more entertaining theater than The Unexpected Man turns out to be.
Lounge Theatre 2, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
February 27, 2010