So, why the maxim? Well, Brown is one of the most talented and innovative composers now working. He's won numerous prizes -- for instance, his score for Parade won the 1999 Tony Award. Nonetheless, Parade closed after only two months on Broadway. Brown's score for Urban Cowboy in 2003 garnered him a second Tony nomination. But that show closed after only 60 performances. In short, there seems to be a disconnect between the critical response to Brown's work and its public acceptance. The number of people who won't go see his award-winning plays is unlimited.
The Last Five Years gives one a sense of how that disconnect happens. The show is bold in concept, honest in feeling and uncompromising in form -- laudable in every way. But it's also minimalist and perplexing. In fact, it isn't a play, at all; it's a song cycle. There are only two performers, a man and a woman. They meet, fall in love and get married. The marriage becomes troubled and then ends in divorce.
What's perplexing about that, you may wonder. Well, the man relates their romance in real time -- that is to say, in the order in which it actually happened. The woman relates the same events backwards, that is, the first moment she presents to us is their goodbye and the last moment is their meeting.
Now, there are many examples of nonlinear, or even reverse, narrative. One of the most famous recent examples, for instance, is Harold Pinter's masterful drama Betrayal, which begins at the end and ends at the beginning. But Pinter is conscious of the device he's using. He makes sure we get it and he keeps us onboard. But The Last Five Years is not a series of scenes, it's a series of songs. Furthermore, one of the characters is moving forward in time, while the other character is moving backwards in time. This makes for a jumbled narrative, with very few clues to keep us oriented. Ironically, we manage to follow the experimental game with time because of a clich level of expectation. Despite moments of confusion, we make a gestalt of what the two characters are telling us, because we expect the path of love to lead from infatuation to disillusionment.
In the Jefferson Performing Arts Society production at Teatro Wego, director Frannie Rosenberg has brought together two likable young actors. Lisa Anzelmo portrays Catherine, an aspiring actress from Ohio. Anzelmo appeared often locally while she was studying theater at Tulane. In fact, she brought her singing and comedic talents to the very first show at Le Chat Noir. But she's been living and acting in New York City for the past five years. Anzelmo has great charm and a fine voice. Her Catherine is a young woman torn between an artistic career and the more traditional values of love, loyalty and submission. Stuart Metcalf, who also flew down from the Big Apple, gives the struggling writer, Jamie, a complex mixture of sentiment and ego. Metcalf stood out as the beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast at JPAS last year. Now, once again, he sings with confidence and holds the stage with poise.
One of the strange things about this song cycle is that the two lovers hardly ever really make contact. Each tends to sing his or her feelings to us, rather than to his or her partner. Only during the marriage sequence do they join together. While their separateness may serve a symbolic purpose, it underlines the severity of the concept, and the limitations of that severity. Speaking of severity, the barren set -- which is meant, no doubt, to add to the abstract feeling of the piece -- suffers from homeliness and lack of focus.
An excellent four-piece ensemble -- piano, cello, violin and guitar -- under the direction of Billy Schill sets a tone that is simultaneously arty and pop. Many of the songs are haunting. The lyrics tend to be heartfelt, in a chatty sort of way.
All in all, The Last Five Years is not your run-of-the-mill musical theater. Demanding and spare, it doesn't offer the easy delights of shows like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas or Damn Yankees. But JPAS has given those who care about such things a rare opportunity to catch up on what's happening at the forefront of a commercial art form.