The Last Five Years
Two Sides of a Troubled, Five-Year Relationship
By Geary Danihy
Cathy and Jamie are together, but then again, they're not. The two, as portrayed by Kristin Huffman, late of Broadway's revival of Company, and Rob Sutton - both superb singers and actors -- chronicle their five-year relationship in The Last Five Years, an uneven yet essentially moving, tuneful musical that opened recently at MTC MainStage in Westport.
Cathy and Jamie's problems, at least as many of them that can be discerned from the songs they sing (music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown), stem from the fact that their careers are going in opposite directions (he's a writer whose work is suddenly the subject of a bidding war amongst publishers; she's a struggling actress who can only find work in summer stock in Ohio). However, it goes deeper than that, and although the songs and dialogue Brown has given Sutton to deliver, which he does in an engaging, muscular and often impish style, clearly limn his personality and its flaws, the same cannot be said for the material Huffman is given to work with, and that's a shame. In fact, except for several songs - the delightful "Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence" and the hilarious "A Summer in Ohio" - Huffman is asked to bemoan and complain about her life and her relationship with Jamie without ever being given the opportunity to explain (either in dialogue or song) what is really eating at her.
This problem becomes painfully obvious in "If I Didn't Believe in You," Jamie's heartfelt attempt to save their marriage. The impetus for this song is Cathy's refusal to attend a party Jamie's publisher is hosting for him (previously she had refused to join him at a bar so he could tell her of a pending positive review of his work by John Updike in The New Yorker).
He pleads with her and does what he can to bolster her confidence while Cathy sits mum, her face a mask. If Freud were reviewing, he might simply ask, "What do women want?" If I were a woman, perhaps I would "understand" Cathy, or at least be able to empathize. I'm not and I couldn't. Maybe it's a guy thing…and maybe that's the point.
To be fair, the material Brown has created weighs heavily in Jamie's favor. In the opening number, Cathy discovers a note Jamie has left her, along with his wedding ring. In response, she sings the mournful "Still Hurting," her emotions out there for all to see. It's touching, but since we as yet know nothing about the couple or their relationship, there is no clear point of reference. It's like watching the end of The Bells of St. Mary's without having seen the rest of the film. You know, intrinsically, that this is an emotional moment, you just can't connect.
In the following scene, Jamie is introduced, and he gets to sing "Shiksa Goddess," which reveals his feelings about Cathy at the start of their relationship. The song is exuberant and witty, and Sutton milks it for all it's worth. Thus, in the first few minutes of the musical we are given a dolorous Cathy and an apparently exuberant, life-embracing Jamie. First impressions are difficult to overcome.
Admittedly, Jamie has flaws, but again, the structure of the production gives Jamie the edge in this area as well. He has a roving eye, but he admits it and explains the problem in song; he is also totally self-absorbed, or so we are told in two songs Cathy sings. The problem is that we seldom get the chance to see the couple together, and hence we do not "see" this self-absorption in action. We hear Cathy's side, and then we hear Jamie's, but only when he pops the question and when they are married do we see them interact - the second moment, nicely directed by Kevin Connors, MTC's executive artistic director -- has the couple begin dancing together but eventually breaking apart to dance alone, signifying that the ceremony, and what it means, is different for each of them.
Another problem, and again it seems to weigh more heavily in the songs Cathy is given to sing, is that their story is not told linearly. Thus, in several of her songs, specifically "I Can Do Better Than That" and "Part of That," it is unclear which part of the relationship the two are in - courting, living together, marriage or on the edge of a break-up.
With the cards initially stacked against Cathy, the dice are then loaded when Jamie gets to sing "The Schmuel Song," essentially a short story he has written that turns out to be a plea to Cathy to reach for the stars and take as much time as she wishes in the process. He is impish, boyish, engaging and, at least it seemed to me, totally sincere. You get to forgive a lot after you hear him tell the story of Schmuel.
And yes, Jamie plays around, and one might think that that's the biggest strike against him, but it comes at the end of the show when the marriage is dashing itself against rocks of failed communication and, once again, Jamie gets to tell his side of the story in "Nobody Needs to Know," in which he allows the pain of what he is doing to rise visibly to the surface.
Again, full appreciation of The Last Five Years may be a matter of gender. This male critic sympathized with Cathy (and certainly appreciated Huffman's singing and acting skills) but empathized with Jamie. However, the show is quite engaging and perhaps best watched as a couple. After the "curtain" falls, go out for a cocktail or two and discuss - I'm sure it will be a sprightly and perhaps revealing conversation.
The Last Five Years runs through Sunday, April 13. For tickets or more information call 454-3883 or go to www.MTCMainStage.org. To read what other critics think of the show or to learn more about what's playing at theaters around Connecticut, go to www.ctcritics.org This review originally ran in The Norwalk Citizen-News.