Five-Year Breakup

Masquers depicts a failed relationship through song.

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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