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

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

The Dinner

By Neil Simon

Unexpected Man

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

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).

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.