Unexpected Man Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 2009:  “virtuosic brio…masterful performances”

The tension ebbs and flows with pregnant comedy as we wait for the woman on the train to open a book. Expectancy reaches almost excruciating levels in the richly elongated moments before her male fellow passenger realizes what she’s reading.

Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn play Yasmina Reza’s “The Unexpected Man” with virtuosic brio in the Spare Stage production that opened Friday at Exit Theatre.

Ruta, an American Conservatory Theater mainstay for much of its first 30 years, nails the world-weariness and prickly vanity of the aged, famous novelist from the moment he spits out his first word, “Bitter.” Van Alyn, long a leading actress on many local stages, epitomizes the quandary of the intelligent, attractive and dedicated older reader who finds herself alone on a train with the favorite author whose latest book is in her handbag.

With Reza’s “Art” still cropping up everywhere, it’s a wonder it’s taken so long for “Man” – a London hit in 1998 (with Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins) – to get a decent Bay Area staging. It had a disappointing local premiere in Lafayette in 2005, but it takes actors of this caliber to negotiate Reza’s cagily meandering interior monologues in Christopher Hampton’s typically incisive translation.

Stephen Drewes, co-founder of the year-old Spare Stage, gives it a perhaps too spare staging on a two-bench set a bit too redolent of “Zoo Story.” There are moments where he could provide more variety to the alternating monologues, as we wait to see whether these two people will ever actually speak to each other. But on the whole, his apparent decision to give Ruta and Van Alyn free rein pays off beautifully.

“Man” is a play about nothing and everything, a comic-poignant drama of missed or possible connections negotiated through the trenchant, dyspeptic, profound and banal musings of two strangers on a train. Reza’s text is rich in unexpectedly low-key delights. Drewes’ production mirrors that quality with the chance to catch two masterful performances up-close and personal in the Exit’s intimate space.

Robert Hurwitt

San Francisco Examiner, July 16, 2009:  “exquisitely nuanced direction…this is a gem not to be missed”

SAN FRANCISCO — How is it that we in the Bay Area have only had the privilege to see one play (“Art”) by French playwright Yasmina Reza, whose “God of Carnage” just won a Tony?

Luckily, the aptly named Spare Stage, a year-old local company, is offering Reza’s late-’90s two-hander, “The Unexpected Man,” translated by Christopher Hampton, in an appropriately spare production.

It involves two benches, simple lighting (by Tyler Null), no set and two of the Bay Area’s finest actors: Ken Ruta (more often seen hereabouts on big stages like ACT) and Abigail Van Alyn (a sorely missed Eureka Theatre veteran).

Good writing, good directing, good acting: nothing more is needed.

Two strangers, both of a certain age, chance to occupy the same compartment on a train from Paris to Frankfurt. The man, mustachioed, his snowy hair artistically long, is a renown novelist; the woman, meticulously dressed and coiffed, is a longtime, dedicated fan who just happens to be reading one of his books, “The Unexpected Man.”

She quickly recognizes him and struggles for the courage to address her idol.

In two alternating stream-of-consciousness monologues, both are preoccupied — in the way you can only be on a long train ride watching the passing landscape and occasionally glimpsing your own reflection in the window — musing over the sad, the happy and the unsettling events of their lives.

The man, angst-ridden and self-absorbed, wonders, “Did I write what I wanted to write? How should I proceed? … Could I possibly be turning bitter?” He obsesses over everything from his daughter’s love life to whether he should go back on Ex-Lax to a friend’s long-ago, oblique criticism of his work.

The woman, gazing at him longingly, thinks, “Why is desire so extravagant compared to what actually happens? … How to approach you — you in the twilight of your life and me in mine?”

Their existential musings and rambling thought processes are comically banal as well as philosophical.

At the end, when the two finally engage each other, the effect is transcendent, the final image, as the lights dim, uplifting.

Under Stephen Drewes’ exquisitely nuanced direction, Ruta and Van Alyn are fascinating to watch, both separately and together.

Ruta’s expressive, mobile face is endearing, although his staccato and stuttering delivery occasionally seems mannered.

Van Alyn is flawless, turning in a layered, emotionally connected portrayal.

This is a gem not to be missed.

—Jean Schiffman

SFweekly.com, July 20, 2009:  “…highly gratifying — both a literary and a theatrical affirmation”

“Bitter” may be the first word spoken in Yasmina Reza’s ruefully comic strangers-on-a-train duet, but the lasting aura is of disarming geniality.

Reza’s text, as translated from the French with characteristic mellifluousness by Christopher Hampton, makes superb fodder for Spare Stage cofounder Stephen Drewes’ mission-specific presentation: All it requires are two people, two benches, and two pools of light.

He is a weary, aged novelist, and the author of the book she happens to have in her purse; she is the thoughtful, loyal reader he’s always wanted and never really expected. En route from Paris to Frankfurt, they take turns talking to themselves, spilling banalities and profundities alike from parallel streams of consciousness, and we wait for the golden moment when finally they’ll talk to each other.

Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn, both quite obvious veterans of intimate dramatic simplicity, make as much with silent moments as they do with their respective inner-life soliloquies. Their choices seem singular and organic enough to elasticize the play’s conceptual austerity.

Bitter it isn’t, but instead highly gratifying — both a literary and a theatrical affirmation.

—Jonathan Kiefer