Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Last Five Years: Self-Expression isn't Enough

(Reflections after seeing THE LAST FIVE YEARS, written and composed by Jason Roberts Brown, at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta, and JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta one month earlier.)

For the last ninety minutes, a pair of appealing singing actors and an ensemble of instrumentalists took me and an audience through THE LAST FIVE YEARS, a frankly autobiographical work in which the freshly divorced Jewish composer-playwright wrote about a freshly-divorced Jewish novelist . It required a great deal of stamina from all concerned, in a way that a three hour performance of KING LEAR does not. Now I'm trying to figure out why. My thought -- which began to detach from the action around one-third of the way through the show -- is that KING LEAR somehow is about us and our world as much as it is about an ancient king. But THE LAST FIVE YEARS never gets beyond the artist's self-expression. It's never our story, and it feels a little distasteful to be watching this artful dissection of the affair, however brilliantly it's done.

Here's what's right about this production: The two stars Natasha Drena and Jonathan MacQueen were likable and pitch-perfect in songs that stretched their ranges and their breath control to the limits. The playwright-composer begins the play with Natasha as "Cathy," singing to her 28-year-old ex-husband how his leaving "still hurts." The composer follows that immediately with the husband "Jamie" at 23 singing about the "Shiksa Goddess" named Cathy whom he has just met. Beginning at opposite ends of the five year relationship, the arc of their story reaches both backwards and forwards on parallel tracks. The evening alternates between Cathy and Jamie, each singing to a telephone, or to an invisible partner, except for a magical sequence mid-way, when they marry, and another song at the end, when one is saying "Good-bye" for the night, and one is saying "Good-bye" forever. We appreciate their attraction to each other, and we sympathize with their frustrations. For awhile, we feel like participants in the affair.

Also right are the songs themselves. There's a pop-Broadway pastiche, and a classic Broadway pastiche, and a lilting waltz that could have been composed any time in the last century, but most of these songs are extended AABA songs with folk-rock sounds and pop vocal techniques. The rhymes fall into place neatly, always making a point. The lyrics seem natural, like speech. The music is composed in multiple meters to make it supple and expressive, swinging and rocking one minute, pensive the next.

Here's where I begin to find my dissatisfaction, though. The lyrics sometimes tell a specific story, as Cathy tells of her odd roommates in summer stock in Ohio, and as Jamie tells about his agent and John Updike's review of his new novel. More often, though, the lyrics are scrubbed free of specifics, and are generalized iterations of the well-worn grooves of relationship-speak: I love you, I miss you, I need to be free to pursue my dreams, I believe in you, I can do better than this, or -- old, old story -- I'm tired of my wife, so let's be lovers. I noticed that the lyrics occasionally resorted to images that had nothing to do with the milieu of the story -- something about flight here, something about water there. Only those trite images reached beyond the stereotyped concerns of the two stereotyped principles. The knowledge that this is essentially the story of the author and his ex-wife doesn't make this any more bearable. In fact, considering what a self-centered jerk the once - endearing young man turns out to be, I wondered if the whole play isn't a personal apology to his ex?

This is essentially drama as imagined by adolescents: The girls whom I teach are endlessly fascinated with who's going with whom, and who's jealous, and who's flirting -- but the interest is all in their insulated circle, nothing of interest to the rest of us.

At the end, my hosts turned to each other and said, "Okay, who's the one you hate more, him or her?" We all agreed, 'him," but that's not much of a reason to drive to Atlanta and sit through ninety minutes.

Looking back over the whole play, I can say that I'm glad I went once. I feel like I've been through the affair. That's an artistic achievement. I also appreciated the craftsmanship of the music, lyrics, and the overall structure of the play, with its backwards-forwards movement ( reflected in the song - fable about a man for whom time moves backwards). But I'd have preferred melodrama, artifice, or some kind of question to be considered besides, "Why doesn't their relationship outlive their sexual attraction?"

For contrast, there's another all-sung revue JACQUES BREL, its eponymous composer-lyricist evidently self-indulgent and self-important. Songs toyed with the same two techniques: strophic repetition, so that verse after verse travelled the same melodic ground, building to a faster or louder climax. Then there was irony: incongruously vivacious music setting grotesque and bitter lyrics, sweet little melodies for pathetic stories. Unlike FIVE YEARS, these songs are usually political, sung from a vantage point far above the personal: whether they're about "timid Frieda" or about the toredadors' bulls as a metaphor for soldiers, they're about types and groups, people who are alienated or hypocritical. The songs all have their effects, and they give the performers chances to sing softly, or growl, or sing stridently, or to dance like Vaudevillians. The end result is, rather like LAST FIVE YEARS, to think, "Gee, that composer sure is skilled, and, gee, I wouldn't want to invite him over for dinner."

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