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A CurtainUp Review
The Unexpected Man

The Unexpected Man Arrives Off-Broadway

Even shorter (by 10 minutes) than Yasmina Reza's super hit Art, this play has taken a long time to wend its way to New York. The London production won more praise for the players than the playwright. Consequently, without the great Michael Gambon the transfer hinged on finding someone of equal stature to play The Man to Ms. Atkins' The Woman. That man has turned out to be the excellent Alan Bates who is well known to American audiences via the large and small screen and to those who can remember far back enough for his Tony-winning turn in Butley. Not being quite the "funny and fun hit" that Art was, the producers, despite Ms. Atkins and Mr. Bates to give luster to the credits, decided to hedge their bets with a limited Off-Broadway run at the 399 seat Promenade Theater.

I saw the Promenade production late in its run and much as I admire Michael Gambon, Alan Bates is nothing short of wonderful in the part, a worthy partner for the terrifically understated Ms. Atkins. The production values enhance the pleasure of watching this slightly plotted pastiche. It's a small gem, rather than a drop-dead diamond and so probably best suited for a house like the Promenade rather than a larger Broadway venue.

By Yasmina Reza
Directed by Matthew WarchusMatthew
Starring Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates
Set and costumes, Mark Thompson
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: Mic Pool and David Bullard
Music: Gary Yershon
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission
Promenade, 2162 Broadway (at 76th Street ),580-1313
Opened Oct. 24, 2000; closing December 31, 2000
postscript: No transfer to Broadway

-- London Review by Darren Dalglish

Unexpected Man -- yet another cast-- in LA

Following the success of Art at the Wyndham's theatre, director Matthew Warchus and translator Christopher Hampton have got together again for another Yasmina Reza's play The Unexpected Man., produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company.

 I have to admit to have been looking forward to this production in the anticipation and hope, that it would be as good as Reza's Art. First thing that has to be said is that it is not another Art and it will not appeal to a large audience as that play does. Since the play is based on two monologues and not dialogue it is an acquired taste. However, for me it lived up to all expectations.

While travelling on a train a woman (Eileen Atkins), by chance, ends up sitting opposite a novelist (Michael Gambon) she admires. What will she do? Will she speak to him? Will she get out the novelist's latest book from her bag and start reading it and see if he reacts?

Instead of any of these actions, the play takes us inside their minds as they ride in the carriage together. Both wallow in memories of their respective lives as they look for ways to break the ice and speak to one another. There is some beautiful writing by Reza which captures the mood and connects us to the familiar situation of nervously seeking a way to make conversation with a complete stranger.

The stage design by Mark Thompson, who also did the design for Art, is again very simple yet effective.. A few wooden chairs stand on a glass floor through which you can see a railway track, and there is a side of a carriage at the back of the stage. Of course it does not look anything like a carriage but, with the sound of a train in the background, it feels like one.

The play has received a mixed response from the popular press. John Peter of The Sunday Times called it "cool and elegant" and went on to say "The writing is witty and suave, brittle and muscular.quot; Nicholas de Jongh of The Evening Standard liked it and was particularly impressed by Eileen Atkins performance saying, "She's sheer theatrical delight." Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote "No one could describe The Unexpected Man as great drama, but it does offer two of our greatest actors in a work of beguiling wit and charm." However, Bill Hagerty of The News of the World was not impressed calling it "Less than captivating" and going on to declare that the combined skills of the actors "cannot craft anything substantial out of Yasmina Reza's fragile piece."

As years pass one acquires a select band of actors to admire, respect and warm to. Nothing beats the excitement of seeing one of these appear on stage again. To have a play with two actors from your "select band" list is a dream come true. At 80 minutes, without an interval, Gambon and Atkins made time flew by as I was mesmerised and transfixed. Their standard of acting that is of the highest order -- it is quite simply bliss.

Unexpected Man (L 'Homme Du Hasard)
by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Sets by Mark Thompson
Barbican Pit, Barbican Centre

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