Los Angeles Theater Review: THE UNEXPECTED MAN (Two Roads Theater in Studio City)

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by Jason Rohrer on May 30, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE UNEXPECTED CUE

Yasmina Reza is the most internationally popular playwright France has produced in a long time; certainly since Jean Genet, possibly since Molière. Her 1994 play Art, in which three friends debate the value of a white canvas, ran for eight years in London; when’s the last time Tartuffe did that? 2007’s adults-are-just-big-children polemic God of Carnage starred a raft of A-list TV / B-list movie actors after it got to Broadway, for over 450 performances. So the least one can say about Reza is that, particularly in the English-speaking world, she has benefited from extraordinarily good packaging. The rap on her popularity is that it’s much ado about little, and that a blank canvas is a good metaphor for the pop-psychology rhetoric of her blithely unapologetic lots-of-questions, no-answers writing. It’s a fair cop. And so what? Since when is theater supposed to hold itself to a higher standard than the other literary forms we

No, I’m not going to finish that sentence. If it works for Reza, maybe it’ll work for me.

I can tell you that Sasha Higgins and Ron Bottitta are currently tearing up Reza’s 1995 trifle, The Unexpected Man, in Studio City. Alone in a Paris-to-Frankfurt first-class compartment, a mysterious if voluble middle-aged woman and a reserved, verge-of-retirement novelist have one of those imaginary conversations you dream of having with the other people on the train, if only they were as interesting as these.

Both Higgins and Bottitta are, strictly speaking, too young for these roles – Higgins’ smooth face and figure just don’t look capable of the children and longterm relationships with which the character is endowed, and Bottitta looks about as ready to retire as the guy who just shoved a billiard cue into your eye in a pub brawl.

And thank God. I mean, are there actual middle-aged actresses in town who could’ve essayed the role of Martha in this play? Yes, I can think of dozens. Are there actors twenty years older than Bottitta who could’ve done this weary writer justice? Absolutely there are. But it’s called acting. I am a fan of colorblind casting, and that works both ways. I think if a white guy can’t play Othello, something’s wrong somewhere. And if Sasha Higgins hadn’t played a role twenty years too old for her opposite one of my favorite actors, I might have gone years without seeing her in a lead. So all’s well in my book.

Here, Bottitta offers up his usual effortless authority. At this point in his life it’s very easy for this actor to command attention while leaning back in a chair. He’s extremely good at playing men unsatisfied and bored with their achievements, annoyed with their inner lives, looking to their environments for distraction. Watching him, a man hopes that in repose he has any of the compelling qualities of a Bottitta. Of course he’s not in repose onstage, he’s working. But it doesn’t look like it. It doesn’t really look like Bottitta. It’s acting, which is quite a difficult thing to do while projecting ennui. And when Bottitta’s face lights up, as the role allows it occasionally to do, it’s like the air conditioning just came on in a sweltering theater off Tujunga. About which more later.

Higgins I had not seen before in a role with any dialogue, so my delight with her performance contained the special gift of surprise. She is one of those English girls for whom the term “fetching” was coined. Her eyes and mouth are vivid and motile tools; every point on her angular body can convey every emotion and idea. Far more than does her character, the actor contains depths a glimpse of which tantalize and drag us on. Her investment provides all the potential drama in this literary exercise: Martha’s got to get us to care about what there is to care about in the text, and Sasha Higgins makes me care very much.

It’s a good thing these two actors are capable of creating their own credible universe, since opening night had all the trappings of a tech rehearsal. Good designers worked on this thing, but I won’t name them because the first performance made it impossible to tell whether any artist or builder did good work. It’s a handsome train-compartment set, but opening night the sliding door wobbled; the video loops were too short by 90%; the lights didn’t know where to come up, the sound didn’t know when to be quiet, the train seats didn’t slide around the stage unless an actor got up. Ms Higgins spent half the performance doing wardrobe damage control. Pretty soon I thought she might give up and let her top fall off since the temperature in the theater rose precipitously from the first moment, finally reaching something in the low nineties before, in the final minutes, someone finally got the AC to work. I was waiting for the stage to collapse (I’ve been in THAT show), but it didn’t. And neither did the actors.

This is all imperfect direction, of course, and production; and so it is to P.K. Ziainia and Corey Todd Jones that the ball must bounce. In staging a script with very little in the way of potential drama, in which two actors mostly sit still, a director’s imperative is pretty clear. Ziainia gets his actors on their feet and into each other’s arms a few times, but the times look fairly arbitrary. And the choice of all that neon, neon that (if this was a cue that worked as designed) pops on with a dramatic music cue when the attractive woman enters the set…well, if this is a choice, it is not a good one. It’s also not entirely the fault of the technical malaise that the story limps along in this production. The actors look like they’re on their own. Fortunately, they’re capable of making a very watchable show out of this one.

The Unexpected Man
produced by Corey Todd Jones
Two Roads Theater
4348 Tujunga Ave. in Studio City
scheduled to end on June 21, 2015
for tickets, call 323-960-7785 or visit www.plays411.com/unexpected

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

D. Jette June 3, 2015 at 11:27 am

“I think if a white guy can’t play Othello, something’s wrong somewhere.”

For Christ’s sake. You should publish the rest of the review on the inside of my skull because my eyes rolled backwards, impossibly.

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Jason Rohrer June 3, 2015 at 6:28 pm

You should check around in there for something we can use to lever your head out of your politics.

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