Of Thee I Sing
The Last Five Years digs relentlessly into a marriage falling apart
by Alistair Highet - May 1, 2003

Musical theater is usually a pretty good bet when going out on a date, what with all those perky kids singing their little hearts out and the male lead ripping into the likes of "If Ever I Should Leave You" à la Robert Goulet in Camelot . My point being that typically musical theater inhabits the world of comedy where dreams come true on the wings of a song and where love is rewarded with everlastingness.

But unless you are currently in a relationship with a jaded, beret-wearing Sartrean existentialist you might want to think twice before taking her or him to The Last Five Years , a brilliant and remorseless musical about the breakup of a marriage, currently running at TheaterWorks. By all means go, but go with someone you won't have to put back together at the end of the evening (unless you enjoy that, I guess).

This is the winner of last year's Drama Desk Award for best music and best lyrics. Written and composed by the Tony Award-winning Jason Robert Brown, who's Urban Cowboy is currently on Broadway, it introduces us to Jamie (Joe Cassidy), a young novelist, and Cathy (Sally Wilfert), an aspiring musical actress. The setting, of course, is Manhattan. What viewers witness is an anatomy of the five years of their relationship, when they first realize that they might be in love to the final moment, when Jamie packs up and moves out.

What saves it from banality is both characters are moving in opposite, narrative directions. When it opens, we see Jamie in the background, in a pantomime of the couple's first meeting. It is Cathy who is in the foreground, standing over a moving box, singing "Still Hurting," a song that tells us Jamie has left her. So as things move forward we follow Jamie as he falls in love, decides to move in with her, has his first success as a novelist (at 28, he is reviewed in The New Yorker by John Updike, a bit like winning the Preakness and scoring the winning goal in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals on the same day ), and gradually grows disillusioned with his marriage. Cathy, we follow, more or less in the opposite direction, from her pain in the break-up, through her less-than-wholly-satisfying break into regional theater in Ohio, through suspicions of his infidelity, backwards, to the first blush of relationship. So the last image that we see is now Jamie standing over the moving box, taking his key off the key ring, while Cathy is in pantomime in the background, miming to Jamie "call me" and laughing at his jokes.

In this work all the information that we get comes from the numbers, flowing in different directions, and they are often terrifically funny. In "Shiksa Goddess" the infatuated Jamie of 23 sings of this perfect woman, Cathy -- if she drinks blood, if she's related to John Gotti, well OK, nobody's perfect. And as he is bubbling with eagerness we move to Cathy, later in the relationship, singing "See, I'm Smiling," like, everything must be OK because I'm smiling, even though you aren't paying any attention to me and I know we are in deep, deep trouble.

The staging is lovely, too, nowhere more so when in "The Next Ten Minutes" we watch Jamie propose to Cathy in a rowboat on a pond in Central Park. This is the halfway point. They marry, and then we are left with Cathy in the boat alone drifting backward away from the marriage, across a metaphorical Styx toward the death of her dreams.

Also terrific is the sequence where Cathy performs her audition number, and we move lyrically into her internal monologue, along the lines of "Why are they looking at my shoes, I hate these shoes, why does the pianist hate me, why is the director staring at the floor," and so on. Very funny.

And yet, there is real despair in this piece, and you can fairly ask the question: Is this about two people who never really met at all? Certainly, this is a relationship that is primarily colored by ambition and fantasy -- to be a great novelist for him, to be a Broadway star for her. He gets there, she doesn't and at one point he sings, "I will not lose because you can't win." Ouch. And I thought about old Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf , getting drunk and tearing each other's guts out at 3 in the morning and I thought, you know, give me Martha and George any day.

The Last Five Years