Awoman boards a train en route to Frankfurt and settles into a compartment opposite a man whose face is strangely familiar. Where has she seen that face before? Oh yes, on the dust cover of the book in her handbag! Yes, it is that famous writer -- her favorite writer! What to say? What to do?
Getting up the nerve to address each other is the tension that drives "The Unexpected Man," an intriguing comedy by French playwright Yasmina Reza, author of the international hit "Art." This production by the Washington Stage Guild is the play's area premiere and features veteran actors Bill Largess and Laura Giannarelli as the self-absorbed novelist and his fan.
Whereas "Art" dealt with a friendship challenged by the purchase of a painting, "The Unexpected Man" presents two strangers connected by their mutual interest in the career of a certain writer. (The title of the play is in fact the title of the novelist's latest book.) It's a smartly written play, structured largely as a series of internal monologues in which the two characters mull over recent events and speculate about each other. All the while, they find reasons not to engage in conversation.
Director Steven Carpenter provides exactly the treatment that a play of this nature requires, finding the action amid the chatter and creating a physical shape for a text that does not immediately suggest one. He does so by taking the characters out of their seats to wander with their thoughts on Tracie Duncan's railroad-themed set.
The strategy matches Reza's text for subtlety: What appears at first to be a railroad platform downstage, strewn with suitcases, emerges as the territory in which painful memories unfold, feeding the characters' hesitations. Oh yes, that's baggage all right, and it's no accident that as Largess's character revisits his disappointments, he settles onto a steamer trunk to brood. "Did I write what I wanted to write?" he laments. "No, never. I wrote what I was capable of."
It's a coy treatment; Carpenter isn't labored about it and neither are his actors. Largess's character is a prickly fellow, yet the actor imbues him with a spirit that we find sympathetic in spite of an outsize ego. And Giannarelli is an actress of natural intelligence and an underplayed kind of sexiness, who communicates complex emotions with the simplest gestures. In larger venues these two fine character actors often are employed in supporting parts. Here, happily, they own the stage, and for 75 minutes our complete attention as well.
The Unexpected Man, by Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Steven Carpenter. Sound, Daniel Schrader; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, William Pucilowsky. Produced by the Washington Stage Guild, performing at Arena Stage at 14th & T, 1901 14th St., through Feb. 9. Call 240-582-0050.