`Unexpected Man’

On Broadway

Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

December 6, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Reviews: The Dinner Party

At the final curtain call of Neil Simon’s "The

Dinner Party" last month, one of the actors, Len Cariou, stepped

forward to thank the audience for leaving their homes and their

televisions

to attend the play. Then he added that it was the bottom of the fifth

and the Mets were leading 1 to 0. The audience cheered and applauded.

The mood change from the conclusion of Simon’s ersatz comedy to news

of "America’s favorite pastime" was palpable.

Apparently tired of writing about his own breed of urban Americans,

Simon has arbitrarily chosen the French as subjects for his latest

and most bitter (forget sweet) comedy. Why he has picked on the French

is never explained. There is certainly nothing remotely French in

manner or attitude in the play’s six characters — three divorced

couples, who make their entrances respectively one at a time at a

posh Parisian restaurant to which they have been invited. Here, they

begin to say things and do things that do not remotely resemble normal

speech, French or otherwise, or suggest human behavior you might have

either imagined or seen before.

With due respect to Simon’s estimable canon of comedies that graced

Broadway most frequently and famously during the pre-TV sitcom era,

his latest venture is so lamentable in substance, execution, and

performance

that the effort to remain seated for its entire 100 intermissionless

minutes was a trial.

Within designer John Lee Beatty’s very pretty evocation of a private

dining salon, its grand wall-covering mural in the style of Fragonard,

we have to contend with a half-dozen dull and dour characters, each

of whom takes great pains to make it clear that they would rather

be somewhere else. Sentiments I shared exactly. The actors likewise

seem to have been cast to further strain whatever credibility there

might be lurking in their implausible situation and in the

insufferable

characters they are required to play.

The first to arrive is Claude Pichon (John Ritter), a rude and

condescending

antiquarian; he is followed by Albert Donay (Henry Winkler), a dopey

sad-sack proprietor of a car rental agency. That they don’t know each

other, or seem to have any social connection is further confounded

when they realize that their dinner invitations come from the divorce

lawyer they have in common. Things get more uncomfortable with the

arrival of Andre Bouville (Len Cariou), an arrogant, stiff-necked

clothing manufacturer, who also has the same lawyer. His overt disdain

for the other two men is nothing compared to the trio’s response and

reactions to the women who then begin to arrive. This comes in the

form of a barrage of one-liners that fall somewhere between outright

flat and almost funny.

First there is Claude’s ex-wife Mariette Levieux (Jan Maxwell), a

stylish and attractive writer of pulp fiction, who apparently had

a short post-divorce fling with Andre. Then comes Yvonne Fouchet

(Veanne

Cox), Albert’s irritatingly timid and tense ex-wife. Last to arrive

is Andre’s ex-wife Gabrielle Buonocelli (Penny Fuller), whom we

discover

is the evening’s manipulator, and whose secret agenda is supposed

to be the raison d’etre for this unsettling little soiree.

The plot plods along as each couple get a chance to face each other

with the facts and feelings that presumably led to their breakup.

I won’t bore you with noting the various revelations and regrets,

except to say that none of it is either sociologically or

psychologically

profound or convincing. The luckiest ones are those couples who take

their rather awkwardly devised cues and leave the room; they don’t

have to continue to listen as we do.

Surely Simon must have had something amusing and inventive in his

mind when he began to write. Yet the text and acting is so stilted

that one might actually think that this is a brutal translation of

some third-rate boulevard comedy. Obviously director John Rando had

no clue about what to make of it or do with it. The result is an

incredible

unfunny comedy. At the play’s end, when the dinner is finally ready

to be served, one suspects it has already turned as rancid as the

unappetizing confrontations that preceded it. One star *

— Simon Saltzman

The Dinner Party, Music Box Theater, 239 West 45 Street,

New York. $20 to $65. 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page
`Unexpected Man’

If we are to welcome a contemporary play about the

French,

let it be Yasmina Reza’s "The Unexpected Man." The author

of the Tony Award-winner "Art," has come up with a slight

but sophisticated romantic fantasy that, while not on a par with

"Art"

is nevertheless a gem.

With far fewer contrivances and characters than Neil Simon’s

"The Dinner Party," Reza’s play is also about the French.

The difference is that it has a plethora of intelligent amusing lines,

an artfully devised premise, and a pair of dazzling performances.

That this trifle of a play runs its course in a mere 75 minutes means

that you will only have a relatively short time in which to be awed

by the performances of Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates, the play’s only

actors. Think of it as a dinner party at which the only course served

is a delicious and completely satisfying creme brulee.

Marthe (Atkins), an attractive smartly dressed middle-aged woman,

is sitting and starring out of the window of her compartment on the

Paris to Frankfurt train. Opposite her is Parsky (Bates), a well-known

middle-aged novelist. Although they are the only occupants, they do

not acknowledge each other or speak. The audience, however, hears

everything they are thinking through their interior thoughts, each

in turn, and each revealing just enough about themselves to make us

want to know more.

Parsky is filled with bitterness about the course of his life and

career and harshly disapproving of his daughter’s choice of a fiance.

He is even more angered and dismayed by the reviews of his latest

book "The Unexpected Man." While contemplating that his career

might well be over, he is also given to digressive opinions and

conjectures

about the intriguing woman seated opposite him.

Not only has Marthe recognized Parsky, but she happens to be an ardent

fan and admirer of all his books. That she happens to have a copy

of his latest book in her purse is cause for great and amusing

anxiety.

While she is as unable to start a conversation with Parsky, as she

is unable to take the book out of her purse, she is up to ruefully

detailing the long-time intimate relationship she has had with a

married

man, recently deceased. Marthe would love nothing more than to speak

to this man she has so long admired. Parsky also begins to wonder

whether or not to start a conversation with the woman whose presence

is one he cannot ignore for the entire trip.

Do they eventually speak to each other? Are they destined for a

relationship?

Romance? The simplicity of the situation is enhanced by the smart

staging by director Matthew Warchus, who allows the actors to move

about rather provocatively in designer Mark Thompson’s cleverly

abstracted

train and track setting. The joy of the play is the insinuating text

and irresistible acting of Atkins and Bates. Minor quibble: Wouldn’t

a short curtain-raiser help to justify the steep price of admission

for such a brief evening? Three stars ***

— Simon Saltzman

The Unexpected Man, Promenade Theater, 2162 Broadway at

76 Street, New York. $60 & $65. 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page
On Broadway

The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you

should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.


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