When a couple divorces, it's said that there are three sides to the story: his, hers and the truth. Well, Jason Robert Brown's intimate song-cycle musical, The Last Five Years, now onstage at the Women's Theater Company gives us the first two viewpoints. The third you'll have to decide for yourselves.
That the two people involved are sympathetic and likable makes discerning the truth all the more difficult. And Brown's innovative decision to have the husband tell the story of their marriage chronologically from the beginning and the wife tell it in reverse really plays with an audience's heads. While this arrangement of scenes may be confusing at first, most audience members will catch on within the first five minutes of the performance.
Jamie and Cathy meet young: both are 23 years old and seeking fame and fortune in the Big Apple—she as an actress and he as a novelist. Cathy's career seems to be going pretty well, although playwright Brown doesn't give us too many details. At that point, Jamie career trajectory has not yet begun; he's seeking an agent for his novel when they meet. Over the course of their five-year marriage, Jamie's star rises as he is feted at book signing parties and by single women (lots) chasing him. In the meantime, Cathy has to hit the audition trail more often, usually without success, until she is reduced to touring Ohio in summer stock and sharing a room with a stripper and her pet snake. Professional jealousy, impatience, the lack of communication and general indifference on the parts of both spouses leads to Jamie's leaving Cathy a goodbye note and his wedding ring. This event frames the play: Cathy discovers them on the table in the opening scene, and Jamie leaves them there at the end.
Lauren Moran Mills has directed the two actors and their stories so that the action moves seamlessly from one point of view to another. The actors she's cast, Lea Antolini (above right) as Cathy and James Sasser (above left) as Jamie, have fine voices and acting skills, the former so important because the story is recounted entirely in song.
Antolini is a fine actress as well as an accomplished singer. The pain she feels at discovering her husband's abandonment ("Jamie's gone and I'm still hurting," she sings) grabs the audience's heart and twists it. Bemoaning her sojourn in Ohio ("40 miles east of Cincinnati") is hilarious and poignant at the same time. Fortunately for Antolini, Cathy grows happier as the plot progresses, especially in the wedding scene, so that by the time the lights go down, we're feeling pretty good about her. Of course, by this time, we (and she) know that her happiness will be rather short-lived. Antolini is a highly trained vocalist, so her voice is beautiful and well-suited to the material. Unfortunately, she pays such close attention to the position of her lips while singing the notes that it is sometimes difficult to understand her enunciation, and the grimaces that ensue make her performance look strained and often unnatural.
As Jamie, Sasser is first-rate at conveying the headiness of fame, the onerous need to make his wife feel more a part of his success (and his frustration when he cannot) and finally, the search for solace that sends him to the bed of another. The latter move doesn't make him very likable, I'm afraid, especially when he tells his lover that "nobody needs to know." His opening song, "Shiksa Goddess," sung after just meeting Cathy is very funny; his mother is going to kill him for falling in love with a non-Jewish girl. And he's especially winning as he sings about Schmuel the Tailor of Klimovich in an Isaac Bashevis Singer-like song meant to encourage Cathy to stop temping and waitressing to follow her dream of becoming a "big time star." Throughout the ninety-minute play, his performance is convincing and natural; he delivers the lyrics he sings in a conversational manner.
Warren Helms' musical direction (he plays piano and Tim Metz the bass) is spot-on, never overpowering, and Todd Mills' atmospheric lighting design signals change of scenes and time effectively yet unobtrusively. Jonathan Wentz's set is no more than a table and two chairs, but they do yeoman's service in grounding the plot's action.
It's said that The Last Five Years is Brown's autobiographical account of his own failed marriage, and that his former wife was so angry she threatened to sue him because the musical represented their relationship too closely. The play's point-of-view is rather skewed toward Jamie's "take" on the marriage; Cathy seems rather whiny and very needy, probably because she starts off "hurting" and doesn't really seem happy until the last two scenes or so. The Women's Theater Company has given The Last Five Years a lovely production, one that is heartfelt and very touching. It is worth your while to travel out to Lake Hiawatha/Parsippany to see it.
The Last Five Years will be performed Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM through March 18 at the Parsippany Arts Center, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha. For information and tickets, call 973.316.3033.