THE UNEXPECTED MAN
by Yasmina Reza
The Unexpected Equity Co-op
Jericho Arts Centre
Tickets: $15 at 604-224-8007
One of the many things that make us the most privileged people ever to have lived on this earth is the unlimited variety of amusements available to us. Some days the sheer range of our entertainment options is just absurdly evident.
For instance, tonight you might go see the hugely popular movie Jackass: Number Two. Or you could choose a literate, sophisticated play, The Unexpected Man by French playwright Yasmina Reza (Art), beautifully staged and performed at the Jericho Arts Centre.
This is definitely adult entertainment. Two cerebral strangers in “the twilight of their lives” share a compartment on the train from Paris to Frankfurt. They think out loud about themselves and each other in complicated intellectual ways, accompanied by Schubert and Debussy. The stage is bare except for two chairs. The only action consists of the actors picking up and moving the chairs. The only suspense is whether they’ll ever speak to each other.
Within these limitations Reza paints a pair of rich, funny character portraits and explores a complex of interesting, if rarely profound, ideas about aging and relationships, art and life. Director Katrina Dunn elegantly choreographs the minimal action and sculpts some lovely visual tableaux with the aid of Gillian Wolpert’s lighting. Veteran actors Christine Willes and William Taylor flesh out the characters in finely contained, handsomely rounded performances that at times become exhilarating.
He’s a famous novelist. She’s a fan who happens to have his latest book, The Unexpected Man, in her purse. Dare she take it out and read it in front of him? She’s a bit overawed because so much of her life, slowly shrinking as opportunities disappear and friends die, seems summed up in his novels. They give her “nostalgia for what has never taken place.” She has so many questions to ask him.
Her demonstrative, enthusiastic, sometimes giddy interior monologues play off against his intense, critical self-absorption. He grumbles about family and friends, sex, his bowel movements (he has high praise for the merits of Ex-Lax), his shriveling life. He doubts the validity of his writing and wonders if anyone in the world properly understands it. Of course, there she sits right across from him.
Taylor combines dignity, polish, and ironic comic complexity in his character, captured in a delightful double-take when he sees her reading his book. Willes turns in a Jessie-worthy performance of subtlety and high comedy, technically adept and deeply human. And both save their best for last. Uncredited translator Christopher Hampton allows them to speak Reza’s self-consciously intellectual French prose in comfortably colloquial English.
So…smart writing, fine acting, and quiet, unexpected pleasures or braying jackasses. You pays your money and you takes your choice.