Sweet, sad, and beautiful, the Second Stage Theater production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years (through May 18th at the Tony Kiser Theater) is irresistible in every sense of the word. Mr. Brown’s inventive, gorgeous numbers carry a weight unmatched by most love songs, and the performances of its two cast members—Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe—are magnificent. Love is a gargantuan subject, but more than adequately covered here in this quietly brilliant staging directed by the show’s creator.
In the show’s bitter opening sequence, the ill-fated marriage of Jamie (Kantor) to Cathy (Wolfe) is coming to a close. Jamie reveals his marital experience to the welcoming audience from beginning to end; Cathy, in reverse. They are only on stage together for one song: the great “The Next Ten Minutes,” for their wedding. During the rest of the show, they sing to their invisible spouses. (In a good bit of direction, Jamie almost always sings facing stage right, and Cathy facing stage left.) Occasionally, we recognize scenes and situations Jamie went through chronologically in Cathy’s backwards travel, and vice versa. The innovative technique of almost universally keeping one character on stage at a time, essentially talking to their respective selves, highlights perhaps the greatest shared flaw of the two characters—their fatal egotism. Jamie’s intense focus on his career as a novelist overshadows his love for his wife, and Cathy believes so fiercely that being married to Jamie will perfect her life that when it doesn’t, she blames her husband.
There is, naturally, a great deal of melodrama here, exquisitely played, but some humor as well (in “A Miracle Would Happen” and the deliciously titled “Shiksa Goddess”) and wistful allegory (in the gobsmackingly well-written “The Schmuel Song”), all sung, not—I believe—accidentally, by Mr. Kantor. His character is far more interesting and relatable than Ms. Wolfe’s, so much so that even when Jamie cheats on his wife near the end of the show, the audience pities he and his (now) ex-wife equally. (These character choices may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Brown’s musical is autobiographical, documenting his failed relationship with actress Theresa O’Neill.) This, however, could be due to the inimitable performances Ms. Wolfe and Mr. Kantor put forth in this production, and the beauty and shrouded wonder Mr. Brown creates with his tear-jerking finale, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You,” in which Jamie has reached the emotional finale of the relationship, and Cathy her wildly excited, smitten beginning. As Jamie bids goodbye to the love of his life, her smile remains wide and unchanging, blinded by the glory of an unsullied future relationship. It’s a blindness of which the audience is painfully aware thanks to her powerful, angry performance in the first half of the show, unable to control her husband’s slipping away.
The music is radiant, which comes as something of a pleasant surprise to someone whose only exposure to Mr. Brown’s work was 2008’s damningly awful 13. The lyrics are clever but unnecessarily so. Simplicity and pure emotional expression are the themes explored in the intriguingly mysterious score. It’s a journey anyone would be lucky to go on. There’s a film version (with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan) on the way, but the chance to experience the cyclical immersion of such beauty is one not worth losing. The Last Five Years is, without doubt, the best offering currently on an Off-Broadway stage. The show explores themes of regret, anger, and betrayal, but the joy it inspires could not be purer.