At the top of my Christmas wish list is a piece of imaginary technology I like to call the Thought Machine. It basically consists of a set of headphones connected to a kind of ray gun. When you aim the gun at people and press the trigger, it shoots out an invisible ray that allows you to listen to their thoughts. I'm hoping that 20 years from now I'll be able to pick up one of these babies at Target for $39.95. In The Unexpected Man, a play currently running at the Cell Theatre, playwright Yasmina Reza uses a similar sort of theatrical technology to crack open the silent thoughts of her two characters.
On a train traveling between Paris and Frankfurt, a novelist (Gary Houston) somehow ends up in the same cramped compartment with a woman (Laurie Thomas) who deeply admires his books. The play is only 70 minutes long. During most of this brief run-time, these two characters don't speak a word to each other, but Reza allows the audience to hear every word they're thinking.
The novelist spends a lot of time kvetching about his family, friends and health, and his fears that he's turning into a bitter man. He eventually notices the woman seated across from him. When he does, his first thought is how pathetic it is that she isn't reading a book.
Ironically, the woman has been aware of the identity of her traveling companion from the first moment she stepped into the compartment. That irony is quadrupled by the fact that she's carrying his latest novel, The Unexpected Man, in her handbag. Throughout most of the play she dissects the novelist's profound impact on her life while at the same time nervously toying with various methods for engaging him in conversation.
The beauty of Reza's play is that although these two characters don't know each other, they can't accurately be described as strangers. The first half of the play is extremely frustrating, largely because it's difficult to have respect for a woman who feels so deeply about a writer, yet when she finds herself in the same compartment with him can't muster the courage to reveal her admiration.
As the play progresses, though, you begin to understand that this woman isn't just some starry-eyed literary groupie. As Reza switches back and forth between the inner worlds of her two characters, you begin to understand that this woman might very well have a deeper understanding of the books in question than the author himself. Gradually, the awkward conventional relationship between artist and fan shifts toward a rarer, almost utopian bond that transforms the creator and his admirer into absolute equals.
In this Fusion Theatre Company production, designer Richard Hogle has created a highly stylized set that places the audience on both sides of the train compartment. This creates the illusion that we're voyeurs peering through the windows of the moving train.
The way the playwright exposes her characters' thoughts and personalities creates a surprising amount of dramatic tension, especially considering the limited interaction between the pair. Waiting to see if she'll speak, if he'll speak, if she'll pull the book out of her bag, if they'll somehow develop the bond you want them to have—all this makes you squirm in your seat.
Thomas is one of our better local thespians, and Houston, who back in 2003 performed brilliantly in the Cell's production of Enda Walsh's Bedbound, is a veteran Chicago stage and screen actor. Under the direction of Jacqueline Reid, their chemistry makes this simple production boil over with an appealing sort of awkward energy.
It's worth noting, too, that this is the perfect play for the Cell. I'm sure part of the reason Fusion selected it is because the Cell's location on First Street next to the train tracks fits the play to a tee. Trains roll by outside the theater, and the racket of their passing melds seamlessly into the drama of the story.
Seating is limited for this one, so buy your tickets now. You should also know that a Sunday, Sept. 18, performance is a benefit for New Mexico P.E.R.F.ORMS, a new coalition of New Mexican performing arts organizations who have banded together to raise money for the victims of Katrina. Tickets for that show are $50.