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March 30, 2010

Art & Craft

Persian-French playwright Yasmina Reza

Some women want everything. The Persian-French playwright Yasmina Reza is beautiful, popular, and successful—and now she also wants to be respected. Her witty one-acter Art (1996), which examined the intellectual havoc visited on the friendship of three men when one spends an outrageous sum on an all-white painting, won the Tony for best play in 1998, and today it's playing in more than 40 countries, having been translated into 30 languages (the London and New York productions used a translation by Christopher Hampton). But it didn't escape Reza's notice that several of New York's mostly male critics considered it a slight, albeit hilarious, bauble—a crowd-pleasing boulevard comedy given gravity by the terrific cast (Alan Alda, Alfred Molina, and Victor Garber) and one of today's hottest young directors (Matthew Warchus).

But Reza refuses to play the gender card. Art, she says, was viewed as "light entertainment" because of its comical aspects, and there are so few "important" female playwrights because women tend to write works of literature rather than plays. "I write as I feel and as I must," she says, in her native French. "I never make an effort to be taken seriously beyond these essential considerations." This month she's putting herself out there again with The Unexpected Man (which opens in New York, off Broadway, at the Promenade Theatre on October 24), and if the heft of the cast is any indication, the show will be another winner. Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins portray two isolated strangers on a train; he, a famous, curmudgeonly novelist, she, his undying fan. Their feelings about how and whether to approach one another are conveyed through telling interior monologues; not until the end of the play do they speak to each other. While word from the London run is that the play is just as funny as Art (and even shorter at 80 minutes), its powerful themes—missed opportunities, bitterness, longing—are likely to trump any lingering, misguided notions that Reza is somehow a less than formidable talent.