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Inner Critics
By Kathy Ceceri

The Unexpected Man
By Yasmina Reza, directed by Patrick Bonavitacola

Main Street Stage, North Adams, Mass., through May 7

Two strangers sit together in a compartment on the train from Paris to Frankfurt. He is a famous author working on what he vows will be his last book. And she is one of his most devoted readers. While the author broods about a case of constipation, a colleague’s Japanese girlfriend, and the likely decline of his literary powers, the woman recalls debating his books’ merits with a recently departed male friend and wonders whether to pull her copy of his latest novel out of her bag. Both are middle-aged, well-dressed, and, as we soon learn, quite intellectual, but neither of them will take the initiative to start a conversation for nearly two-thirds of the 90-minute play. Instead, they direct their comments to us, the audience, in a series of alternating monologues so demanding they practically leave the theatergoer gasping for air.

Comments about Ex-Lax and bran aside, rarely do we see two characters talking almost exclusively about ideas. (Picture My Dinner with Andre done completely in voiceovers.) Written by Yasmina Reza, the French-Jewish author of Art, the surprise Broadway hit about abstract painting, The Unexpected Man is yet another indication that we are not as smart as we like to think we are on this side of the Atlantic. Watching it can make you feel a little like a kid eavesdropping on the grownups’ conversation. Yet the play does have a resonance for the rest of us. In the famous author’s almost comical fear of getting older (he’s on his way to meet, and tell off, the much older man his daughter wants to marry), in the woman’s loneliness for her late companion (a friendship that endured despite their marriages to others) are the universal worries that accompany the passage of years, no matter what our opinion of Schumann—assuming we have any.

Main Street Stage cofounder and newly appointed artistic director Bruce T. McDonald plays the writer, Paul Parsky, with such immediacy that it’s hard to keep from responding out loud to his rhetorical questions, especially in the closeness of the 48-seat theater. Parsky is self-centered, misogynistic, and petty, toting up the slights given him by his friends and dreaming up demeaning scenarios for them. McDonald doesn’t try to make him likable, but some sympathy for Parsky does manage to creep in nonetheless. Lynn H. Wood has no previous acting experience, but spent a year working on the piece with McDonald, both with director Bonavitacola’s input and on their own. Her strongly accented Martha seems so independent, yet believes she is less interesting than people like Parsky because she refuses to be cynical; she loves life. Martha hesitates to talk to her favorite novelist, even though she has so much to ask him and believes in his talent so deeply. Wood makes us root for the writer to drop his self-absorbed inner ramblings for a minute and notice her, and for Martha to gather up her courage and finally make the first move. Both actors have complete mastery of their characters. Though foreign in more than one sense, Parsky and Martha are real people with problems that will seem familiar to us, even if we have to pay closer attention to what they’re saying than we’re used to.

Now You See Him . . .

The Invisible Man
By H.G. Wells, Adapted by P.W. Meineck, directed by Robert Richmond

The Aquila Theatre Company, Proctor’s Theatre, April 6

Although written in 1897, H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man has an almost frighteningly modern sentiment. Griffin, the mad scientist who discovers a formula that makes flesh disappear, finds other people a major annoyance. His innkeeper, Mrs. Hall, stops bringing him meals even though he’s told her he’s expecting some money soon; Mr. Marvel, the tramp who’s supposed to help him sneak out of town, betrays him. If this were a 21st-century story, Griffin would be running slower drivers off the road in his invisible SUV and causing chaos in the supermarket by making people’s cellphones fly out of their hands mid- sentence. But while you can certainly sympathize with his feelings, Griffin is not a sympathetic character. There isn’t anybody he would spare. At the same time, he uses his extraordinary advantage over other mortals for trivial ends: robbing houses, terrorizing small country towns. And running around naked in the dank English night has given him a cold. In the end, the Invisible Man is neither master evil-doer nor misunderstood genius: He’s just a maladjusted chemist with a lot of bad luck. It’s this sorry protagonist who appears in the Aquila Theatre Company’s nicely dramatic, if at times a bit thin, adaptation of Wells’ horror classic.

On an all-black, dimly lit set, with only a few pieces of suggestive multi-purpose scenery, Aquila’s stark production was decidedly spooky. At the same time, the New York-based troupe wisely took a page from the 1930s Claude Rains film by turning Wells’ mockingly portrayed townsfolk into comic characters who water down the booze and listen at keyholes. As the actors explained afterward to the schoolday audience, director Richmond and company looked to silent movies and radio to come up with their storytelling style, using pantomime, mechanical movements, and the occasional sound effect to convey the action. Composer Anthony Cochrane worked along with the actors to develop a silent-movie-type soundtrack which helped set the eerie mood. Some dialogue was hard to hear, and some scenes sped by too quickly—anyone who hadn’t read the book may have had trouble sorting out the characters (25 minutes had been cut for the student show), but the ensemble of young actors were smoothly directed and worked well together. Louis Butelli as Griffin, Lindsay Rae Taylor as Mrs. Hall and Lincoln Hudson as Marvel were particularly fine.

The much-heralded “tricks” used to make the Invisible Man invisible were standard theatrical devices, such as Kabuki-style black coverings and a big coat pulled over the actor’s head. But for my money the Invisible Man was even scarier when he was covered head to toe. Dressed, his potential for mayhem had yet to be released. It was when he revealed his invisibility that his ultimate vulnerability became apparent as well.

—Kathy Ceceri


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