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Marriage Is Easy

Making A Dramatic Musical About It Is Not

THE BREAKUP SONG: Betsy Morgan belts it out in The Last Five Years.

By John Barry | Posted 9/14/2005

The Last Five Years By Jason Brown

At Everyman Theatre through Oct. 16

Maybe Everyman Theatre has been trying to save on Equity actors, because its last three plays have included two actors apiece—and they’ve all been about troubled couples. Yellowman was an almost Romeo and Juliet look at skin shadings and romance. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune took an unbared look at a one-night stand between two working-class New Yorkers. Now Jason Brown’s The Last Five Yearsjoffers up a brief, doomed marriage between two success-driven, twentysomething white college graduates.

This scenario may be easier for white college graduates to access. Brown scrapes for complications to spice up his romance, but they don’t really open up the closets that Yellowman or Frankie and Johnny did. Although religious differences don’t play much of a role, Jamie (Josh Davis) is a successful young Jewish writer; Cathy (Betsy Morgan) is a blond gentile goddess and wannabe actress who is stuck in the summer-stock circuit. Brown’s plot device is really the identifying feature: as the evening progresses, Jamie goes forward in time while Cathy goes backward. They both intersect at the three-year point, with an exchange of marital vows. Otherwise, they’re on different time lines, singing songs from different points in the relationship.

It’s more an arrangement of show tunes than musical theater. Brown, a rising light in musicals, has come up with a clever arrangement of songs—possibly culled from experience as an up-and-coming composer in New York. Everyman has taken the opportunity to showcase two good young performers and a first-rate six-piece orchestra. The evening moves quickly; the success of the production is largely measured by the ability of Davis and Morgan to maintain their separate time lines as they recall moments in their relationship.

Brown’s temporal mosaic, however, isn’t really conducive to drama; characters typically get up onstage together so they can interact. Nevertheless, his arrangement dredges up interesting emotions. The concluding duet is a real hankie-wiper: on one side of the stage, Jamie picks up his bags and sings “I Could Never Rescue You,” while on the other side, Cathy savors Jamie’s first kiss with “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” With this arrangement, the clichés of modern romance are tinged with real tragedy, as the two young lovers find themselves on different moving sidewalks, grabbing at one another as they move further apart. Time is the inexorable villain here.

That is more of a statement than a play, though. Dramatic dialogue obviously isn’t a priority for Brown. The lineup—15 songs total—turns Five Years into a singing duel, which would be a little more effective if it wasn’t so easy to tell in which character’s skin Brown fits. Jamie’s wonder-boy charisma, which Davis delivers in spades, drives the play. His bravura high points: “Shiksa Goddess,” in which he goes nuclear over the blond of his dreams, and “The Schmuel Song,” a funny, touching narrative about an old Jewish tailor who starts stitching in a race against time. As a character, though, Jamie’s show-stealing persona feels a little forced. Brown forgets that Jamie’s a first-time novelist, not a performance artist who belts out show tunes.

As Cathy, Morgan has to deal with a character who spends most of her time wondering how to deal with her brilliant, charismatic boyfriend/husband. And Morgan has to run that gauntlet in reverse: starting out alone and drained, ending up as the perky Valley girl she was in college. Despite the limitations of the role, Morgan injects her character with charming naiveté—particularly in “Climbing Uphill,” when she experiences the tribulations of endless auditions. Cathy is, unfortunately, the character who gets pushed offstage by Jamie, who thinks of her as a bit of a nag and a downer.

The multilayered set by Thomas Donahue, with screen backdrops, and patches of brickwork, adds another ominous note to the production. As Jamie embarks on his journey to literary superstardom, the trashy atmosphere, littered with street signs and playbills, is urgently chaotic. By the end of the play, as Jamie turns 28, slight shifts in lighting leave the same set looking a little trashy. Welcome to your 30s, kids.

Everyman’s enjoyable production of The Last Five Years is a brainteaser and a heartbreaker, but it’s also an applause-driven crowd pleaser in the vein of 2003’s Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Not to dis Brown as shallow: For his 1998 Broadway debut he composed the songs for Parade, a highly regarded but commercially unsuccessful musical about a lynching. But on his own—Songs for a New World is his other musical—Brown leans toward the revue style: Smidgens of dialogue patch things together between enough songs to fill up a CD. In dramatic terms, it’s bravado without backbone. If Brown really wants to break ground in musical theater, then he’s got to have his characters do a little less performing and a little more acting.

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