I do, I don’t
SpeakEasy has a good Five Years

The Boston Phoenix

The Last Five Years
By Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Eric Engel. Music director and conductor Paul Katz. Set by Susan Zeeman Rogers. Lighting by Linda O’Brien. Costumes by David Brooks. With Becca Ayers and Tally Sessions. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts through February 29.

HE SAID, SHE SAID: Tally Sessions and Becca Ayers both say it well.

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years came very near to permanent oblivion on his closet shelf. Not because theaters didn’t want to stage the "he said, she said" musical elegy for a failed marriage. The problem was that the marriage in question sounded very much like Brown’s own first union, and he was barred by the divorce decree from depicting too much autobiographical material. His former wife’s lawyers did not hesitate to enforce that decree.

So the show that SpeakEasy Stage is presenting in its Boston professional premiere is not the story of Jason Robert Brown’s marriage. Which may be a good thing. Having reworked it into a slightly more generic portrait of a marriage, he has created a universal catalogue of sweetness, pain, exhilaration, and despair. First produced in 2001, The Last Five Years won the 2002 Drama Desk Awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics.

The show has an intriguing structural concept: its two performers alternate songs — he telling his story from start to finish, she telling hers from finish to start. As the work opens, Cathy Hiatt (Becca Ayers) is spotlit stage left recounting in aggrieved fashion the self-absorption of soon-to-be-ex Jamie, how blind he is to the way she’s "still hurting." Then, stage right, Jamie Wellerstein (Tally Sessions) counters with the funny yet poignant exhilaration of first love. He’s Jewish; she’s Christian. "I’m breaking my mother’s heart," he exults, declaring himself the "Hebrew servant" of his "Shiksa Goddess."

As the story unfolds (in both directions), we see Jamie, a struggling young author, launched on the fast track to success while actress Cathy auditions unsuccessfully and makes do with summer stock in the boonies. We see how each of his accomplishments exacts a price on the relationship, and how her personality changes from sunny, optimistic, and generous to frustrated and envious. The only time both protagonists are truly happy comes in the middle of the show, when they exchange marriage vows.

Brown has a knack for lyrics that capture contemporary vernacular and express an up-to-the-minute world view. He can also tell compelling stories in song. In "The Schmuel Song," Jamie gives Cathy a Christmas present but prefaces it with a moralizing fable about a tailor who always dreams of making a perfect gown but doesn’t have time to spare from his day job. There’s also a hilarious send-up of auditioning in which Cathy sings an old-fashioned Broadway love song but substitutes for the words all her inner self-doubts.

Brown interweaves musical motifs throughout the show — a slightly saccharine, vaguely Viennese waltz is heard at several points ironically suggesting "happily ever after" romance. He also knows how to paint text: in "I’m a Part of That," Cathy describes Jamie as absorbed in his creative thoughts and walking endlessly around the apartment, "logging miles," and the word "miles" is held for a small eternity. Brown’s weakness is that he can’t write a memorable tune. In both this show and his previous Songs for a New World , he demonstrates more craft than genius. There’s a prosaic sameness about his melodies, which often follow a formulaic progression to big belting climax.

SpeakEasy’s production is a good one, with two attractive and sympathetic performers in Becca Ayers and Tally Sessions. Boasting a powerful, well-schooled, expressive voice, Ayers moves through what must be a difficult theatrical trajectory, from the anguish of parting to the dizzy delight of new love. Sessions is charming, funny, and energized, and he remains agreeable even as his character turns selfish and self-deluded (is that some authorial defensiveness at work?). His singing is more efficient than beautiful. Director Eric Engel moves the performers around deftly; the characters’ places on stage are reversed at beginning and end, with the two standing as far apart as possible. And there are several clever touches, as when Cathy interacts with "Jamie the Writer" in the form of a lifesize cardboard mannequin straight out of a bookstore promotional display.

Paul Katz, with the help of assistant musical director Jose Delgado, oversees the small, unseen musical ensemble that does a nice job of supporting the singers. Besides piano, there are some strings, but they remain uncredited in the program. Shame.

The Last Five Years