Don't worry -- the characters in The Unexpected Man are still both relatable and ridiculous. The two people are still trapped together for a finite period by social convention, driven like pack mules by their pride and insecurity. But it's just enough gentler, warmer, less pessimistic than playwright Yasmina Reza's better-known hits (God of Carnage, Art) that you can sip it instead of slamming it.
Although it's one of those plots that seems as though it would never happen to Americans, Theatre Artists Studio's crisp, delicate production feels fresh and relevant nevertheless. A long rehearsal period resulted in nuanced, deliberate choices, not only in the performers' interpretations but also in the subtle supporting elements of simple design.
Steven Mastroieni plays a middle-aged novelist who's taking a train from Paris to Frankfurt, contemplating whether to meet his adult daughter's fiancé after he arrives. Drea Pruseau plays a middle-aged woman who's traveling on the same train -- we aren't sure exactly why -- after the death of a close friend. She happens to be a great fan of the novelist, and they happen to wind up sitting in the same compartment.
The great suspense of the story is whether these two lonely total strangers will meet -- will speak to one another at all. Now, the actors do talk; they talk a lot, but what the audience hears is their unspoken thoughts, in alternating monologues. Mastroieni finds an unusual focal point that feels as though it's just below the audience's eye level. We can still see his facial expressions, but he's obviously not addressing us -- and he isn't, so it works quite well.
Pruseau is elegant and aware of it -- again, just right for her character -- as she alternately amuses and disgusts herself with the sort of rehearsed remarks you try out when you're thinking about meeting one of your idols. Her emotional vulnerability adds heft to the mundane subjects that run through her mind.
TAS' core audience trends around the age of the characters and older, but I think that the show is both interesting and entertaining for any theatergoer. The concerns that prey on The Man and The Woman (as the script calls them; their names turn out to be Paul and Marthe) range from how -- or whether -- to maintain an output of respectable work to what one's next adventure might be, and with whom.
The humor, sprinkled not too liberally throughout, is abrupt and delightful. Director Carol MacLeod and her cast deserve credit for crafting the framework of all those words in a way that keeps the audience anxious to hear more. It's the stage equivalent of brain surgery, and if it failed and we drifted away, we'd miss both the laughs and the thought-provoking turns of phrase. Mastroieni is a master of the dry muttered quip, while Pruseau interacts with her circumscribed environment to create wordless jokes -- such as a single, noisy page-flip that resonates like a pie in the face.
TAS' press release mentions that this particular script contains no stage directions or character descriptions. In this case, I think that presents the opposite of a challenge. It sounds like an engaging novel that creates its own images in the reader's mind. (And some teachers and practitioners of theater actually black out the stage directions in scripts, because they can be an oddball distraction.)
Dale Nakagawa's lights and Deborah Mather Boehm's set, which suggests one "wall" of the high-speed train, use diagonals to suggest motion toward a point, and the geometric red, black, and gray shapes look gorgeous in the contemporary venue while contrasting cleverly with the warmth of the human condition housed within. And the sound design, by Terry Youngren Hanson, includes instrumental pre-show music that travels between cocktail-y blues and speedy, filmic riffs -- similarly sleek and modern, but with a moody undercurrent.
The Unexpected Man continues through Sunday, February 26, at Theatre Artists Studio, 4848 East Cactus Road. Tickets are $10 to $20; order here or call 602-765-0120.