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The Unexpected Man

Reviewed by Julius Novick

Presented by Julian Schlossberg, Ben Sprecher, Ted Tulchin, and William P. Miller, in association with Aaron Levy and Morton Wolkowitz, at the Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway, NYC, Oct. 24-Jan. 28.

There was really no substance to "Art," Yasmina Reza's huge international hit: nothing at all, except a continuous series of cleverly contrived opportunities for clever comic acting. "The Unexpected Man," Ms. Reza's latest, lacks even that.

A middle-aged woman, on a train from Paris to Frankfurt, recognizes the man seated opposite her as a well-known author, whose book, "The Unexpected Man," she happens to have brought with her. There are no other characters. Until nearly the end of the play, they do not speak to one another; instead, they speak their thoughts in alternating monologues. Their thoughts are not very interesting. We hear about his prospective son-in-law, and about her friends Serge and Georges: people we don't know, and have no reason to care about. She thinks about what she might say to him; he fantasizes that she is going to Frankfurt to see her lover. Will she or won't she take her copy of "The Unexpected Man" out of her tote bag? The suspense is less than overwhelming.

Ms. Reza's slender script, in a smooth, crisp translation by Christopher Hampton, has been given deluxe treatment in a production that comes to the Promenade from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Matthew Warchus' direction, the scenery by Mark Thompson, and the lighting by Hugh Vanstone liberate the action, or rather the inaction, from the confines of a railway compartment. Eileen Atkins repeats her London performance, and Alan Bates replaces Michael Gambon opposite her. He is solid and gruff, she light, mercurial, often playful. They make a nice contrast, like a duet for bassoon and flute.

But all their magnetism and expertise cannot disguise how little they have to work with. It is hard to imagine why anyone, except fanatical admirers of one or both of the (admittedly admirable) actors, would want to pay $65 to sit through Ms. Reza's 75-minute inanity.

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