The Dinner Party, another Neil Simon Lightweight; Yasmina Reza's Compelling, Perceptive The Unexpected Man


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The Dinner Party
By Neil Simon


The Unexpected Man
By Yasmina Reza

Lest I seem prematurely snobbish, let me backtrack and say that, for 20 minutes or so, I thought The Dinner Party (which runs an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes) might be an interesting hybrid. After all, why shouldn't Neil Simon stretch? Who's to say that, even at age 73, and after four decades of honing his lightweight, quippy style and skin-deep mode of banter and characterization, even this deeply institutionalized popular author couldn't plunge inward and emerge with something more penetrating and tenacious than he'd ever found before. The play's pre-opening publicity reported that it was born of reflection on his five marriages (two to the same woman) and three divorces (one wife died). The basic idea thus held a certain morbid promise, as did the news that L.A. and Washington audiences were puzzled by the work. I went with an open mind.


The problem is that Simon just couldn't pull off the fusion of Kaufman and Ferber (Dinner at Eight) with Anouilh and Sartre that he apparently had in mind. He's comfortable with the American paradigm?the seriocomic discomfort of a glittery supper that can't quite get started?but the note of somber spiritual suffering he tried to add to it doesn't come off at all. It's as if he lost his nerve (or his inspiration) in the face of its serious demands. About two-thirds through, one of the pseudo-reflective guests blurts out, "It's a goddamned Agatha Christie dinner!"?and I wondered then why (especially since the audience hardly laughed) he was still looking for flippant labels for the action rather than involving himself more fully in some substantial conversational point.


Through a lawyer whom all of them know, six people are invited to a dinner party in a private room at a chic Paris restaurant without knowing who the other guests will be. As they arrive one by one, they discover that someone has contrived the evening as a forced encounter for ex-spouses. The three former couples will rehash old arguments, remember old affections, weigh once again whether they made the right choice to separate, and in the end two will reconsider their breakups. Meanwhile, nothing about the European context or elegant decor (set designer John Lee Beatty has outdone himself producing a rounded Fragonard-style mural, since Rococo is in this year, I guess) ever feels necessary or even helpful to the discussions. And the basic premise that the mysterious contriver (whose identity I won't give away) could really keep them there, jumping through figurative hoops, is never convincing.


Still, one might have accepted all this as innocuous overpackaging had the characters, or the thoughts about marriage and divorce, been meatier. Simon's addiction to dumb little tag lines ("Well, we're splitting, which is what we all did in the first place") gets old very fast in this setting, and only one of the couples really seems "written": an antique-dealer, bibliophile and failed writer (played by John Ritter) who became jealous of his wife's success with what she admits are mediocre novels (Jan Maxwell). The other couples are pure sitcom (a self-consciously dimwitted couple played by Henry Winkler and Veanne Cox, who tries to substitute an off-the-wall physical characterization for a true bizarreness her lines fail to convey) and quippified stereotype (a rude and unscrupulous tycoon, played by Len Cariou, who struggles to free himself from his sexually voracious female counterpart, played by Penny Fuller).


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If you took the two interesting characters in The Dinner Party, played by Ritter and Maxwell, aged them 20 years and then put them on a train from Paris to Frankfurt where they meet for the first time, you'd have a crude approximation of the setup in Reza's The Unexpected Man. Reza's work isn't primarily comic?there are laughs, though mostly not from explicit jokes?but the truth is, Simon's would have benefited from being less so. If Simon joked himself into a platitudinous corner trying to write about feelings of writerly failure and destructive hesitation and aloofness within couples, Reza "cornered" herself deliberately to find the best form to write about those same subjects: for most of her play, her two characters speak as if the other isn't there, even though they're in the same space.


A famous author finds himself in a train compartment with an attractive woman around his age (60s) who is reading his latest book. "Good subject for a short story," he says, but on second thought adds, "bit old-fashioned." The wrinkle here is that Reza's author (named Paul Parsky) doesn't discover this coincidence until very near the end (she waits to pull out the book, which is also titled The Unexpected Man), whereas the woman (named Martha), Parsky's longtime, ardent admirer, recognizes him right away. More than three-quarters of the play is thus composed of interior monologues expressing the characters' thoughts before they have properly met. Except for one brief, trivial exchange, they don't speak directly to each other until the last 10 minutes of the 80-minute action. In the meantime, their musings are extremely specific and revealing, and some of her imagined remarks to him are intimate to the point of impudence.


Reza, it seems, is interested in violated boundaries, in the act of probing deeper than social propriety permits, and she has found a happier context here for this preoccupation than she did in Art. Art dealt with three men whose friendship is strained after one of them purchases an all-white painting, leading to extended personal attacks between workaday, heterosexual guy-guys that strained belief and came off as excuses for sophomoric grandstanding about art. The boundary violations in The Unexpected Man, by contrast, are imaginary and take place between a heterosexual man and woman, and that sexual tension makes them much more believable. Moreover, because the characters are unapologetically intelligent, the play is also free to be about something other than sex.


Paul and Martha digress at length about friends, children, lovers, literature, music, tastes, ideas and much more, and the tone and detail of their digressions assure the audience of their compatibility: both are insomniacs, for instance, slightly bitter and bemusedly fatalistic about their bitterness, dropping numerous unacknowledged paraphrases of Beckett. Since all the digressions are also obviously warmups for a direct interaction to come, though, one does get impatient with them at times. Martha, for instance, repeatedly compares her dead friend Serge to one of Parsky's characters, and it starts to seem coy that she doesn't just talk more about those characters and the beloved books they come from.


The point is, her readerly acuteness is as central to the play, in the end, as the process of her and Paul cautiously coming together. At one point, he says, "Is there today one single person in the whole world, in the whole world who might know how to read that book [meaning The Unexpected Man]?" Reza, in other words, has not only composed a bittersweet autumnal love story; she has also written an unusual allegory about the mystery and secret sensuality of reading. Sixty-year-old Martha is a writer's fantasy, an "ideal reader" whose enthusiasm is so intense it spills over into something like acting?the action of life?even if only in the mind. The conception recalls the thesis of the book Acting as Reading by David Cole, which won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism some years ago and then dropped off the popular radar like most other good theater books. Cole's argument is that great actors are great readers and?somewhat more controversial?that the reverse is also often true.


There is lovely, subtle comedy in The Unexpected Man, and both the director Matthew Warchus and the superb actors Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates deserve much credit for flushing and fleshing it out. Both performers are magnificent at seeming effortlessly dignified yet also deliciously vain, fragile yet deeply in love with their own powers of contemplation. Her taciturnity is now impenetrable, now a mere front for a girlish desire to impress, his hauteur glacial, then the next moment harmless as perspiration (when he feels flattered). The timing, pacing and modulation are all exquisite, and Mark Thompson's set?which features reflective train windows behind a transparent plexiglas floor, with a diagonal train track underneath and small folding chairs above it?provides eloquent visual echoes for the crucial shifts between internal and external action. For all its occasional evasiveness, this is a compelling work, a pungent and perceptive inquiry into the strange links between desire, invention and self-invention.


The Dinner Party, Music Box Theater, 239 W. 45th St. (betw. B'way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200, through April 1.


The Unexpected Man, Promenade Theater, 2162 Broadway (76th St.), 239-6200, through Dec. 31.


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