Addison — Jason Robert Brown’s intriguingly intimate one-act, two-actor musical The Last Five Years proved to be generally fascinating and occasionally problematic at Monday night’s opening of a three-week run at WaterTower Theatre in Addison.
Based on playwright-composer Brown’s personal experience of first-time marriage (according to published reports, his ex-wife at one point sued him over some of the material, so closely did it resemble their life together), The Last Five Years explores the pitfalls of young love through the not-so-unlikely relationship of two artsy New Yorkers. Jamie (Seth Womack) is a successful (and, not-so-incidentally, Jewish) novelist from the outer suburbs, easily at home in the city; Cathy (Monique Abry) is a not-so-successful aspiring actress who came to New York from down south.
Brown gives this almost typical tale of romance and disappointment in the age of serial monogamy an engaging and sometimes disconcerting twist: Cathy tells her tale in backward chronological order, from the moment of breakup to the moment of first infatuation, while Jamie narrates his part of the story forward in chronological time. This strategy admirably underlines the dreamlike, timeless quality of romantic relationships; however, it also depends heavily on clarification in the production itself, which doesn’t always come through clearly in director Kelsey Leigh Ervi’s staging. Viewers unfamiliar with what’s going on may find themselves wondering when and where things are happening; and, in this version, necessary visual signals in lighting, costume, or placement on the stage are absent or insufficient.
Womack and Abry take on their respective roles with verve and unfailing energy, though the built-in challenges are numerous. Jamie is, from the beginning, disturbingly self-absorbed—in other words, not an easy guy to like. His thoroughly entertaining opening song, “Shiksa Goddess,” subtly reveals that his new non-Jewish girlfriend Cathy serves, at least in part, as a trophy to hoist at his suburban Jewish background. His love for Cathy and his inspiration as a novelist are, ultimately, all about himself, though Womack valiantly and ultimately makes us care about a very real, albeit hard-to-like character. Indeed, Womack’s only flaw in delivery emerged Monday night in a smattering of slightly out-of-tune notes in an otherwise pleasant vocal delivery of a demanding vocal role. (The show is cast as an almost continuous cycle of songs for 90 minutes, with very little spoken dialogue, and very little opportunity to rest overworked vocal cords.)
Meanwhile, Abry provides a nearly unalloyed success as Cathy, owning a wide emotional range and an ability to belt with beauty and control. Dramatically, the character of Cathy is almost as unlikeable as Jamie, though in a more subtle way: she’s at times disturbingly willing to lap up the scraps of attention Jamie tosses her way when he’s not schmoozing agents, publishers, and groupies, and she’s likewise stubbornly (and whiningly) unable and unwilling to find her comfort level and niche in a cut-throat competitive world. Cathy complains and jokes deprecatingly about working with gay people and midgets; one well might wonder if author Brown deliberately did this to darken her character or if it’s a cultural norm from 2001, when the show was written, that might merit revision in the text.
Musically, Brown’s score offers a pleasant, largely predictable late-‘90s soft-rock ambience that’s at its best when it breaks out of the mold, particularly in the delightfully ironic “Climbing Uphill,” “A Summer in Ohio,” and “I Can Do Better Than That.” And timing, tunefulness, and clever lyrics meld impressively in “When You Come Home to Me.”
The scoring for small ensemble of piano, two cellos, violin, bass, and guitar is highly effective; the musicians, embedded and visible throughout Bradley Gray’s single delightfully cluttered, multi-level set, occasionally interact with the actors—one of the cellists at one point takes on the silent role of Jamie’s new girlfriend. Music director Adam Wright neatly holds this widely separated ensemble together from his seat at the piano, no small task given the complexity and constantly shifting textures of the score, and the distances among the musicians.
In spite of failing to provide some necessary (for the first time viewer at least) clues of time and place, director Ervi admirably captures the energy and essence of this work; Sylvia Fuhrken’s costumes likewise communicate trendy casualness (the folks on stage were dressed very much like the folks in the audience), though, once again, a little less subtlety would have helped clarify the complex time and place relationships.
Admittedly, some of the cultural elements of The Last Five Years have aged in the 17 years since its premiere. But the core exploration of the daunting difficulties of romance—and the necessity of moving bravely forward—in a fast-paced post-modern world, remains timely. Despite minor flaws, WaterTower Theatre’s production of this structurally brave work is well worth the effort.