Total Rating: 
June 17, 2017
September 30, 2017
Spring Green
American Players Theater
Theater Type: 
Touchstone Theater
Theater Address: 
5059 Golf Course Road
Running Time: 
75 min
Yasmina Reza
Laura Gordon

As one walks into the cool darkness of the American Players Theater 200-seat indoor theater, waiting for Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man to begin, there is not much to see onstage. Two park-type benches face each other. On the backdrop are nine rectangular projections (the size of train windows). The sounds of a train are heard before the play begins.

As the lights come up, an older Woman settles into one seat. She is carrying a tote bag. Soon the man appears. He is about the same age as the woman, and carries a worn leather pouch. He peers into the coach and checks his ticket. It’s clear from his expression that he would have preferred a private compartment. The Man (Brian Mani) silently takes the other seat.

The Unexpected Man consists mainly of a series of interior monologues between these two characters. They talk of the uncensored thoughts in their own minds. The man, a well-known and well-traveled contemporary author, has recently published a book with the same name as the play’s title. (The Unexpected Man also may refer to the character’s very presence on the train.)

The woman (Sarah Day), an avid fan of this author, immediately recognizes him but is too shy to speak up. It is a long train ride, so she has time to mentally rehearse her opening remarks to him (if she ever finds the courage to start a conversation).

For almost the entire 75-minute duration of The Unexpected Man, these monologues continue. Director Laura Gordon artfully teases a thread of unexpected humor within the play, and the audience delights in some unintentional running jokes. As fun as this play is to watch, however, one grows impatient near the conclusion. It seems the journey will end without either of them saying a word to each other. Gordon and her competent cast do an excellent job of creating this deliberate tension.

It’s immediately apparent why American Players Theater would choose this play for its indoor space. The Unexpected Man demands an intimate environment, where the audience can see every gesture and glance. The play also boasts an award-winning playwright (Yasmina Reza’s most well-known play is Wit), and comes with Broadway credits (at the Promenade Theater, with Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins). But more than that, this play allows APT audiences to recognize characters much like themselves. At least 80% of the crowd during a recent matinee could qualify as being in “their twilight years,” a phrase used by the Woman.

As the play’s journey continues, the Man and Woman conclude – independently - that they have accomplished most of what they’ll contribute in their lives. It is a sobering thought.

Sarah Day’s character is haunted by the deaths of those around her, including the very recent death of an old friend, 76-year-old Serge. She adds his name to a list that includes her husband and many friends who’ve died over the years. On this day, Serge’s death is keenly felt. Intellectually, Day understands that she must eventually accept a world without the presence of Serge. But her heart aches for him, as well as for those no longer here.

As the author, Brian Mani reminds one of his brilliant performance as Willy Loman in last season’s Death of a Salesman . Both men have reached the end of a road: Willie by force, and the man by realizing his limitations. “Do I write what I want to write?,” Mani’s character says, with a trace of bitterness. “No. I can only write what I am capable of writing.” He refers to himself as the “captain of a lost ship,” not really knowing where to steer next.

It should be noted that Both Sarah Day and Brian Mani are well-known to Wisconsin audiences. Day, born in Madison, Wis., has spent 25 years creating characters at APT. Mani, who lives in on Milwaukee’s East side for most of the year, also has become a familiar presence to theatergoers at APT.

One suspects that the playwright tried to give both characters in The Unexpected Man equal weight. However, Mani seems more in touch with his character’s idiosyncrasies, his blather, his high opinion of himself, than Day does with her more introspective and sensitive character. In any case, both Man and Woman come to the same conclusion about love. Mani’s character states his impatience with sex which, he finds, is less fulfilling than mere closeness with a woman. Day’s character ponders this topic in even more detail, as she silently wonders, “Why is sexual desire (in general) so different than sexual attraction (to a certain person)?”

Day takes on the task of breaking the ice between them. She keeps a copy of The Unexpected Man, which she is currently reading, hidden in her bag until almost the end of the play. She suspects that merely pulling out the book and appearing to read it will motivate the author to take over from there.

In The Unexpected Man, Reza makes a compelling point that the antidote to loneliness may be literally under our noses. She seems to suggest that people “of a certain age” can overcome times of inevitable loneliness with putting forth just a bit of effort in the right direction.

Brian Mani (the Man); Sarah Day (the Woman).
Set: Jeffrey Kmiec; Costumes: Rachel Laritz; Lighting: Jesse Klug; Sound and Original Music: Joe Cerqua.
Anne Siegel
Date Reviewed: 
August 2016