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Separate Lives

Ingenious, Skillful Musical One-Act Comically and Dramatically Mines Marriage

CONJUGALITY: Randy Dunkle cuddles Julia Lancione.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 11/21/2007

The Last Five Years

By Jason Robert Brown

At Vagabond Theater through Nov. 25

Plenty of artistic endeavors try to re-create the self-deprecating immediacy of Yiddish theater--a genre that has had more than its share of influence on the modern movie industry, Broadway, and dozens of authors, from Neil Simon to Philip Roth. Few do it with such maturity as Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, a tale of failed love in the modern age that negotiates the politics of a relationship between a Jewish writer and his non-Jewish actress wife, from the early stages of romance through the demise of their marriage. More importantly, few do it so convincingly through song, without the schlock and sugary sexual innuendo that Broadway and Tin Pan Alley have established as their standard.

More than a sustained, linear narrative, Five Years is a series of vignettes based around complex, '70s-style pop songs written about the collapse of a young marriage. Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt marry in their early-to-mid 20s, when everything is simple and they have their dreams to nourish them. But then Jamie's career takes off. His first novel gets reviewed by John Updike in The New Yorker, and he becomes a wunderkind on the New York literary scene. He waves his wedding ring in the faces of attractive female admirers at book parties, and chides himself for caring what they think of him.

Cathy, meanwhile, is stuck in a rut. She can't get any callbacks for her New York auditions and is forced to spend her summers performing Fiddler on the Roof and Porgy and Bess with community theater groups in Ohio. Her only write-ups are clippings from local papers.

It would be easy to say that this play is about the dynamics of a relationship between two people whose lives are unequal, but that would be a disservice. Told in operatic constant song, The Last Five Years is about the modern tragedy that is the institution of marriage.

Early on, Jamie (Randy Dunkle) sings "Shiksa Goddess," the play's most recognizable tune (made popular in the original cast recording by Norbert Leo Butz), to his wife as they frolic around their queen-sized bed in what is presumably a postcoital scene. "I'm breaking my mother's heart/ The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking/ And crumbling to the ground/ And my grandfather's rolling/ Rolling in his grave," he sings, then adds, endearingly, that it doesn't matter, because he's been waiting his whole life for a gentile like her.

But in the Vagabond Players' production, Cathy (Julia Lancione) is facing her husband as he serenades her, but her back is turned on the audience. Director Bill Kamberger used this blocking technique throughout the play to establish the disconnection between his two characters. We hardly ever see both of their faces at once, making each song feel like a monologue to an absent subject and exaggerating the tension between them. The only time they truly look happy is during their wedding scene, in the midst of a song wherein Jamie asks Cathy just to give him "the next 10 minutes" of her life so he can convince her to be his wife.

In another scene, Cathy paces their apartment while Jamie sits and writes. She stops to observe her husband, "lost in Jamieland," a mental province of idleness and self-absorption that she has no part of at all. But then, a smile lights up his face, he starts jabbing at his laptop, and she beams--"I'm part of that," sings Lancione in her rich, high alto. Impressive in her range and clarity of expression, Lancione makes Cathy's hang-ups and heartache over her marriage convincing and mature, not saccharine and whiny. Especially impressive are her moments of conversational recitative, which make for speeches that no husband could ever ignore.

Dunkle as Jamie is a very strong singer, and good with comic delivery, but decidedly less remarkable than his female counterpart. Neither of them moves around onstage quite enough, but Dunkle's mind appears to be even further afield, concentrating on nailing his singing parts without putting forward a convincing picture of himself as the loving, yet egotistical author.

A good production of the The Last Five Years would make Jamie and Cathy's problems universal, something that every couple can relate to, and to an extent Dunkle and Lancione do just that. It's a hard show to manage, given the amount of music, staging, and acting that goes into each role. The Vagabond Players certainly rise to occasion, delivering a musical performance that is as rich in characterization and skillful play-acting as it is in cute, infectious songs.

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