Sharing a compartment on a train from Paris to Frankfurt, novelist Paul Parsky and a woman named Martha each occupy their own worlds. Though she recognizes him immediately as a writer whose works she "loves," and though she has his most recent novel, The Unexpected Man, in her purse, she does not speak to him and is too embarrassed to take out his book. Each character speaks his thoughts aloud, the separate monologues constituting the "action" of the play. Parsky is bitter about life and thinks of himself as something of a personal and professional failure, preoccupied by minor health problems, the disconnects between himself and his children, and the remarks made about his books by critics and friends. Martha reminisces about her own life and how Parsky's novels parallel her real life experience and that of her friends, especially Serge, a dear friend who died at seventy-six.
While Parsky is mulling over comments on his work and thinking that his observations have "no value in the practice of literature," Martha is silently conversing with him, telling him that "you personally invent protective misunderstandings, because you're haunted by the fear of being understood." While he wonders if there is "anyone in the whole world who might know how to read [The Unexpected Man]," Martha is revealing her superior understanding of both him and his book, which she finally takes from her purse to read. When, at the end of the "play," an awkward conversation finally begins, Parsky, not admitting his identity, tries to persuade Martha that the author of the book is irritating, selfish, and unable "to turn a single moment into an eternity."
Published in 1998, and translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, Yasmina Reza's "play" is not a play in the traditional sense. Though the audience comes to know both characters through their monologues, they do not interact until briefly at the end, and though both may learn something, especially Parsky, the moment of recognition--in which light dawns on one of the characters as a result of the action in the play--is so brief it is almost unrecognizable. Witty and filled with thoughtful comments about life, eternity, and the meaning of literature, this subtle drama leaves most of the action up to the viewer's imagination, creating, ironically, "a nostalgia for what's never taken place." Mary Whipple