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Stages Repertory Theatre Rises to the Challenge of The Unexpected Man

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For more coverage of The Unexpected Man at Stages Repertory Theatre, see our chat with actors Sally Edmundson and James Belcher and director Seth Gordon here.

The setup:

Acclaimed playwright Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage) explores the inner life of a successful male novelist and a female admirer of his work, as they sit together in a railroad carriage.

The execution:

The characters face each other on small banquettes, but not directly. They are on a carpeted, small circular raised stage, which rotates at a slow, unobtrusive pace. This is theater-in-the-round, so each audience member sees as much of the back of an actor's head as the face. This work would play better with them seated next to each other, surely plausible for a railroad carriage, and possible in a different theater.

Like the wildly successful Art, this is an actor's vehicle, designed to showcase talent. James Belcher plays the writer, and his performance alone is worth the price of admission, as he creates a vivid portrait of a literary lion discovering that age does not soften vanity and pettiness, but simply increases the importance of regularity in bodily functions, and the chance of insomnia. For most of the play, he barely moves, but his powerful voice cascades with nuance and subtlety, and we see why playwright Reza saw fit to create this challenge for actors. He more than rises to the occasion.

The performance of Sally Edmundson is more problematic, and puzzling. Interior thoughts place them both in the twilight of their lives, but Edmundson seems smack in the center of middle-aged robustness, and has the attractive legs to prove it. While Belcher is appropriately immobile, the play's director, Seth Gordon, portrays Edmundson as vivacious, with broad gestures, as she ruminates. This of course destroys the illusion of the railroad carriage, as the writer would perforce have noticed these gyrations. Edmundson has an interesting voice and an expressive face, and might have been more effective if permitted to echo Belcher's immobility.

Despite the necessary passivity of the action, there is excitement. One passage in particular is brilliant, in which the writer imagines the woman and a lover buying a picture in Frankfurt, and the detail and wit of the description let us see the power of the writer's imagination. There is suspense, but of a trivial sort. There are no philosophical insights, simply character studies -- but this is itself Reza's insight and philosophical stance. And there is a denouement of sorts, in which an affirmation by the woman becomes significant. Or does it? For the ensuing conversation would have been revelatory. But the play ends. Have we been subjected to a shaggy dog story?

In a way, we have. Reza at one point has the writer thinking: "That would have been a wonderful subject for a short story." That is what this play is: a short story converted to theater, to see if she can get away with it. And, bless her, she has. We should be grateful to Stages for presenting it. I would not be surprised to see it become a perennial, as deft actors clamor to attempt it, and directors to put their stamp on it. It may become the K2 of two-handers. But, please, never again in the round.

The verdict:

Skilled acting meets and surpasses the challenge of a seemingly static play, as an acclaimed playwright sets her sights high, and pulls off a high-wire act.

The Unexpected Man continues through May 13 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527-0123 or visit the company website.

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