Sarah Day and Brian Mani are a tour de force in “The Unexpected Man” at ATP
If ever there was prima facie evidence that putting great actors together with a great director can lift even the thinnest of scripts to heaven, this is it.
“The Unexpected Man”, a brief scramble down a path toward conversation, friendship or even love, opened he season for American Players Theatre and with Laura Gordon at the helm and Brian Mani and Sarah Day manning the oars, becomes a surprising triumph.
Surprising because this 75 minute petit effort tackles no mind-numbing issues of importance, but it instead offers a mystery of such enthrall that sadness sweeps once the whole thing comes to a chuckling end.
This two person play allows the audience to see two actors who put their years of experience on stunning display along with Gordon’s intelligence in allowing Mani and Day to steer their course without distraction of interference.
The setup is a simple one.
A train traveling from Paris to Frankfurt and two people, sitting on opposite sides of the same berth. A man, a successful author, and a woman, one of his most devoted readers.
Nary a word passes between them for the first hour as we are treated a series of alternating monologues in which the pair reveal what is roiling inside them.
He is wrapped up in virtual disgust the lover of his daughter and full of rapture for issues regarding his digestive tract. He is also a man who has an obvious sense of false modesty, a writer proud of his words but claiming none of the trappings of authorly fame.
She, on the other hand, is torn. In her bag is the latest novel by the man, “:The Unexpected Man,” and she struggles to reach a decision about whether to pull the book out and read it in front of the author.
She is also still in mourning for her recently deceased friend, Serge, with whom she had a relationship.
It is in their individual musings that we see the brilliance of playwright Yasmina Reza, the French playwright who created the brilliant “Art,” an examination of men facing the destruction of their relationships.
In this play Reza takes the opposite path, two adults conquering fear and uncertainty as they step, with great hesitation, toward a relationship with each other.
We eavesdrop on the musings of these two actors, who have a chemistry you get only after years and years behind the footlights.
From her as she contemplates the loss of her beloved Serge:
“How do you accept that the world contains one less person to love us.”
“I’d like someone to explain tome why sadness always catches you by surprise.”
He on the novels he has written:
“What is it that counts, the long run or the moment?”
or when he ponders adapting one of his novels into a play and regards the audience with…
l”laughter in the theater that is congratulating itself for being intelligent enough to know why it’s being laughed.’’
The tension – and mystery – of this story is whether either of these two worldly and world weary travelers will actually find their way into the other’s life.
For Mani and Day this play presents and opportunity to share a bucketful of skill and experience with the audience, and with each other.
He is gruff and pointed, full of the kind of self-obsessed approbation that coffers innate insecurity. She is civilized and careful with an insecurity that truly is born out of confidence.
I have seen countless performances by both Mani and Day and been privileged to see a number of productions directed by Gordon.
It’s easy to say that I have never seen a combination that has filled 75 minutes so brilliantly. Once we passed the 75th minute I was full of hope for a second act.
Production Credits: Director: Laura Gordon; Voice and Text Coach, Sara Becker; Costume Design, Rachel Laritz; Scenic Design, Jeffrey Kmiec; Lighting Design, Jesse Klug; Sound Design & Original Music, Joe Cerqua; Stage Manager David Hartig.