It takes a certain strength of character to withstand a ninety-minute musical about a failed five-year relationship. Either you need a sweet tooth for sentimentality, or an ironclad soul to keep you from empathizing with the actors on stage. You definitely need enough distance from your own failed relationships to not weep through the whole production. But you also need to have suffered enough star-crossed romances that the phrases "If I didn't believe in you" and "I could never rescue you" (both song titles) would actually resonate. Indeed, most of us have used such ridiculously cloying lines at one point or another, even if we'd rather forget them. Jason Robert Brown's one-act musical The Last Five Years — now playing at Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond — is the ghost of relationships past, come back to haunt us.
The play's backstory indicates just why it's so excruciating to watch. Brown wrote it in 2001, shortly after the disintegration of his own first marriage. Loosely autobiographical and told in flashback form, it looks like a well-edited, tidied-up version of what must have been a messy catharsis. The story is pretty barren: In 1997, a young novelist named Jamie Wellerstein (Danny Cozart) meets theater actress Cathy Hiatt (Jennifer Ekman). He's worldly, prodigiously successful, and Jewish. She's unknown, provincial, and Christian. Jamie proposes to Cathy in New York, where he's attending graduate school at Columbia University (he apparently leaves after acquiring an agent and a book deal). She returns to her hometown in Ohio to pursue an acting career and they try to sustain a long-distance marriage. In the meantime, Jamie rises higher and higher in the literary world while Cathy fumbles through her auditions and moves in with roommates. They argue. Jamie sleeps with an unidentified woman who could be his editor. He leaves Cathy a Dear John letter. She is demoralized.
All told, it's a rather pat romantic template that rings true, once you cut through the treacle. Most relationships have winners and losers, and in this case it's pretty obvious who plays which role. For most of the play Jamie sings catchy blues-rock numbers that help establish his cult of personality. He's on the phone with an agent; he's got a review pending in The New Yorker; he wishes Random House would stop calling so he could get a word in with his wife. Cathy, meanwhile, is the one burdened with singing torch songs about the man who done her wrong. She can be funny and self-deprecating — particularly in the number "Climbing Uphill," in which she complains about having to audition with hundreds of girls who are younger and thinner and have already been to the gym that morning. But she ultimately seems sedentary and pathetic, staying in Podunk Ohio even as her career flounders, and casting a jealous eye on Jamie's hot female editor. The Last Five Years opens with Cathy's ballad "Still Hurting," in which she reacts to the breakup with Jamie. Though we don't yet know the story of their relationship, it's clear by the fourth song — Jamie's solo number "Moving Too Fast," about his own breakout success — that he's out of her league.
The staging at Masquers is bare bones, with no set pieces save for a Hanukkah menorah and some Christmas lights, plus a riser stage that serves alternately as a bed, pier, and car. The five-piece chamber group sits on the back of the stage almost hidden from view, and remains fairly unobtrusive, save for a piano that occasionally overpowers the two singers. Both have great intonation and vocal range, and sound sweet in a musical theater-ish kind of way. Sweet enough, at least, to make all those soaring bridge sections somewhat bearable. (Their last duet, "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You," is the only song with real musical sophistication.) The Last Five Years requires almost no actual acting — it's really just twelve songs strung together, with a brief pause for Jamie to read an excerpt from one of his novels. Still, Ekman takes pains to make Cathy's character believable, with her dowdy cashmere sweaters and sensible shoes. Perpetually-smiling Cozart looks like someone from the cast of Freaks and Geeks playing the part of a musical theater actor. He's likeable if not quite convincing, but his voice makes up for it.
Otherwise, this play is not for the faint-of-heart. Brown may be a rising star on Broadway, but he's not the next Cole Porter. With The Last Five Years, he's tried two rather ill-fated ideas: First, he wrote the kind of vintage romantic musical that wouldn't necessarily play to a modern audience (Rent this is not). Second, he created something that's utterly self-indulgent at its core. Based on the program notes from director Daren A.C. Carollo (which begin, "The Last Five Years is filled with experiences everyone in this theatre has gone through during their search to find their forever companion, lover, and friend, all in one being"), it's clear that nobody involved with the production comes at it with any sense of irony. Thankfully, "forever" clocks in at ninety minutes, in this case.
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