The follow-up to her Tony-winning hit “Art,” Yasmina Reza’s “The Unexpected Man” received an underwhelming response in New York, which makes it a bit unexpected that the Geffen production is so undeniably enjoyable. Christopher Lloyd and Holland Taylor dig into this difficult two-character piece with exacting clarity, finding its intelligence, its humor and, ultimately, its pleasing warmth. It’s genuinely gratifying to see two fine actors, best known for their television work, challenged to their potential and meeting that challenge so superbly. So often one yearns to see the initial English-language cast in a show like this, especially when that was Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins, but it really is hard to imagine that cast could be better than what we have here.
The play is set on a train from Paris to Frankfurt, where a man and a woman find themselves seated across from each other. It proceeds as a series of monologues representing their internal thoughts. He’s a famous writer, known for being antisocial and even bitter; she’s an enormous admirer of his work and has his latest novel, “The Unexpected Man,” in her handbag. She desperately wants to talk to him, but is paralyzed by a combination of awed fear and a sense that her fantasies of who he is might prove far superior to the reality. He, meanwhile, retreats into his own world, contemplating his family problems and a friend’s less-than-enthusiastic response to his latest publication.
European to its core, “The Unexpected Man” certainly doesn’t shy away from being purposefully self-important, even pretentious, in its characterizations and tone. “Art” didn’t either, although that piece at least had characters talking to each other, which made it much more accessible to a broader audience. Here, in just under an hour and a half, without an intermission, we are led to wonder whether these two characters will have any dialogue at all.
It could be dry stuff, but Taylor and Lloyd find all the nuances. With simplicity and passion, they turn many of the more academic contemplations on the nature of art, artist and audience into an exploration of very human desires, without ever compromising the intellectualism of their characters or resorting to bathos.
Lloyd, of course, is known for his broad comedy — he’s the best there is at playing the brilliant buffoon. Here he’s no buffoon, but an uptight artiste described as the definition of “midcentury elegance.” He’s believably that, but he still puts his strong facial features and his unmatched talent with a double take to excellent use.
Taylor probably has the harder role, less stereotypical, a bit less showy and perhaps even more mysterious in her neediness. But without ever seeming to try, she makes her character more and more sympathetic. We find ourselves starting to root for these people who at first seem so very distant and frigid.
Director Maria Mileaf — who also staged the touring version of “Art” — deserves a lot of credit here, too, making sure that what suspense there is builds to a genuine climax.
Mileaf also finds enough variation in the staging to keep this from getting too stagnant, and here she’s assisted by some stimulating design choices. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and Gary Yerson’s music help create the needed transitions and underline the narrative beats. Mark Thompson’s set is elegantly nonliteral. The train itself is in the background, a smooth, sleek and reflective surface, while the compartment is created with nothing but a few chairs, positioned asymmetrically around the stage. The chairs sit on a glass platform, a foot or so above the stage proper, which is covered in white stones.
The reflective quality of this partly dreamy, partly realistic set mirrors some of the thematic undercurrents of Reza’s work. We can see ourselves in it. And this is also the kind of play that might resonate in Los Angeles more than elsewhere, since the city is populated by so many of the famous and the fawning.