nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
September 26, 2008
No one ever said marriage was easy. Michael Weller goes several steps further in his steamroller of a play, Fifty Words, planting little idiosyncrasies in his two characters that scene by scene build into emotional land mines. This is a relationship both intimate and cold, one where the characters love to the point of hating. The play's dialogue bristles, the tempo demands full attention, and the cast delivers a physically and emotionally demanding performance. Not since Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has a couple stripped bare its veneer of civility with such raw intensity. Martha and George, meet Jan and Adam.
The story starts easily enough. Adam, an architect, arrives home with take-out for dinner. In walks Jan, a busy entrepreneur with her own start-up and a lot of work yet to be done. The catalyst for the evening's entertainment is their son, Greg, who is at a friend's house for his first sleepover, leaving the two alone for the night for the first time in nine years. Adam provides a bottle of champagne, candlelight, and good humor. It is his goal to engage in some seriously overdue hanky panky since he will be leaving on a business trip in the morning.
Jan, on the other hand, is concerned about Greg. Their son, we learn, is mostly friendless, tends to disappear beneath clothes in the lost and found. She reveals that the school shrink called to say he may not be prepared for the fifth grade and believes his behavior may be caused by a change at home. Adam thinks the shrink should get a real job, initiating their first argument of the evening. Adam brings it back to the candlelight and champagne along with a few reminiscences. We see some warmth and laughter from Jan, but she proves contrary and impenetrable. She is unmoved by Adam's advances. Ultimately, Adam wants nothing more than to chisel away at her marble exterior. What better way than to reveal a secret that will bring some emotion to the surface? It is the secret that pushes them over the proverbial precipice. It's not that Jan and Adam don't love one another. They simply cannot satisfy each other. Failed dreams, difficult challenges, different rhythms, and disappointments all contribute to the unraveling of this middle class marriage.
But it is Weller's scene-by-scene revelations that artfully transfer the audience's sympathies from Adam to Jan, back to Adam and again to Jan, all the while upping the ante in their repartee, and peeling away the layers of trust built up over the years. Norbert Leo Butz delivers an endearing husband at the start, and by the end, unleashes an animal instinct that Adam didn't know he had in him. Elizabeth Marvel gives the unreasonable Jan super-charged energy that feeds her loneliness and her withholding demeanor—a far cry from the woman Adam first met in an elevator. She shows only a glimpse of warmth—slightly more would make Adam's attraction to her more plausible—and finally explodes in a fit of uncontrollable violence when she learns Adam's secret. Her demand? "Give me back my power!"
The strength of Fifty Words is in the taut dialogue written by Mr. Weller, and the mastery of it by the two actors. Austin Pendleton weighs in with admirable directorial muscle, his brisk pace becoming more vigorous with each successive scene. Occasional long, pregnant pauses are well-placed, allowing the effects of the characters' turmoil to register and pulling the audience in a little bit closer. Neil Patel's detailed set—colorful, complete, and comfortable—reveals just enough about this couple without giving away any of their interior. Mimi O'Donnell's costume is less flattering on Marvel than the text suggests. Michelle Habeck designed artful lighting, particularly the morning light; Josh Schmidt wrote the original music; and Fitz Patton created the sound.