Spotlight on the Arts
4:20 pm
Fri May 23, 2014

One Marriage, Two Journeys, In Long Wharf's "The Last Five Years"

Two solo stories wrap around one another strategically and musically.

There’s both irony and brilliance behind the story-telling style of "The Last Five Years," Jason Robert Brown’s two-character musical currently running at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

In what one would call a “relationship piece,” except for one musical scene, the actors don’t relate to one another at all -- certainly, not face to face. Instead, Cathy and Jaime -- a couple who meet, fall in love, marry, and then spilt -- share the journey of their five-year partnership through a collection of solo numbers and a few short phone conversations.

While you might think a monologue approach (in lieu of scenes) would  limit the breadth of their story, that’s not the case at all. One upside is that we get to know them individually, how each honestly thinks and feels. It's two for the price of one; two one-person musical plays about creative people.

Performance footage provided by Long Wharf Theatre from its teaser reel produced by Jacob Bricca. Still photographs by T. Charles Erickson.

Set in New York City, the play features Cathy, an actor who’s perpetually cast in summer stock productions somewhere in Ohio. Then there's Jaime, an emerging, red-hot novelist, and he knows it. Career is vital to each of them, and the songs become defining snapshots in time, revealing who they are as individuals, and how their careers influence their choices in an ever-changing relationship.

What lifts the musical into high concept is how these two solo stories wrap around one another strategically and musically, deepening our perspective while engaging us emotionally. Since we rarely get to see the characters react to one another in person, we become instead their acting partner. Brown’s evocative score and masterful lyrics create a musical lifeline to Cathy and Jaime’s inner worlds every step of the way.

Brown doesn’t stop there. He cleverly manipulates time in order to give us a unique dual-character perspective on the discoveries, conflicts, and decisions that are made. Jaime’s version of the marriage starts at the very beginning of the relationship, and moves forward over five years. Cathy’s story travels simultaneously backward. This crafty device created by Brown allows us to dissect the relationship breakdowns, while offering us the power of hindsight.

Katie Rose Clarke as Cathy and Adam Halpin as Jaime in "The Last Five Years" at Long Wharf Theatre.
Katie Rose Clarke as Cathy and Adam Halpin as Jaime in "The Last Five Years" at Long Wharf Theatre.
Credit T. Charles Erickson

Of course, the production’s anticipated crossroads is "The Next Ten Minutes," the one song where both of the actors physically come together in real time and space. As directed by Long Wharf's artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, the song/scene emerges as a deeply romanticized moment. Staged within a rowboat, gracefully gliding around a turntable set under a starry night, and straight into the marriage vows, their union has momentum, and is clearly destined. It’s the one time that everything is perfect, when they both see and hear things happening in exactly the same way.

I wonder, though: is this moment real, or just a fantasy version? Is this the best of what marriage will prove to be? But like so many great old musicals, when you’re in love, dreams and reality can become one and the same, at least for the next ten minutes.

Stripping away pretense and musical theater gimmicks, Adam Halpin and Katie Rose Clarke deliver performances that are authentic, moving, and at times, risky and fun. Each of them works to connect music and words, instead of performing at us with big ideas or showy voices. As actors, they uncover surprising emotions and justified reasoning behind these people, all placed there by Brown’s proven understanding of how to tell a relevant and rich musical story.

When Cathy shares with us "I’m A Part of That," Clarke raises her game and proves what everyone’s been saying about Mr. Brown’s resemblance to Mr. Sondheim. She finds the hidden intentions underneath a beautiful, changing number, allowing the audience to experience what you’d never see if simply listening to it on a recorded version. It’s one of the fine moments in a production that encourages truth in each phrase of its many appealing songs.

Halpin embodies Jaime with confidence and sass, and chooses to adjust the throttle on the character’s super-sized ego in order to show us Jaime’s honest attempt at controlling his career drive (and selfish needs) for the sake of Cathy, and sticking with the marriage as long as he can.

I believe in his genuine attempts to save the relationship, even as their careers verge into two very different directions. Halpin’s charisma, tempered edginess, and playful sense of humor keep you glued to Jaime’s conflicted character.

Long Wharf’s "The Last Five Years" is a tight production that encourages realism from every musical phrase. If it’s the musical that’s meant to capture the challenges of marriage in the 21st century, at least in New York anyway, then Jason Robert Brown and the Long Wharf Theatre certainly give us music for thought. In our career driven, me-centered, and marriage-never-lasts culture, its nice to draw on some wisdom that comes from a human journey -- make that two journeys -- of people we both recognize and care about. 

"The Last Five Years" runs through June 1.