The Last Five Years should send discriminating theatergoers fleeing for anything—a shot of Old Grand-Dad, a fistful of Vicodin, a hammer—to make them forget what they've just experienced. It's a musical, so that's strike one on general principles. It's a pretty simple musical about two people who meet, fall in love, develop, um, issues and break up, so that's strike two for hackneyed. It's a play that says nothing novel or unique about relationships, love or heartache. Strike three for intellectual resonance.
Why, then, is Jason Robert Brown's 85-minute, two-person musical so powerful and poignant? Could be that the composer, one of the hottest names in contemporary American theater, is as talented as his press people claim. Even if The Last Five Yearsdoesn't say anything new, Brown's emotionally resonant music and affecting lyrics do, lifting his musical from the self-inflicted limitations of the dorky genre to genuine sophistication.
And Brown does it through the telling of a most simple story. Cathy, an aspiring actress, falls in love with Jamie, an aspiring novelist. The two hurl themselves at each other, marry, drift apart and eventually break up. That's it.
It sounds like the script for all 24 hours of Oxygen every day. But Brown casts the proceedings more dramatically by playing with chronology. We know from the beginning that this union is doomed because we meet the heartbroken Cathy (Kim Huber) at the end of the relationship; her songs travel back in time and, by the end of the play, she is flushed with excitement at the prospect of this new guy she's met. Meanwhile, we meet Jamie (Rick Cornette) at the other end of the relationship: he's exhilarated over the non-Jewish woman he's just met. By play's end, as Cathy warbles in wildly optimistic song about her new love, Jamie is walking out the door.
It's a dramaturgical gimmick, but damn if it doesn't work.
Brown doesn't spend a great deal of time on character. We know them as a couple, but not as individuals—other than that they're young, ambitious and creative. But maybe that's Brown's ultimate point. We don't know a lot about Cathy and Jamie because they don't know a lot about themselves, and that, ultimately, makes it impossible for either to truly know the other. You see that in Drew Scott Harris' direction, with the characters moving on- and offstage seemingly oblivious of one another. And you see it in Narelle Sisson's set design, all large rectangles cut in two by single, solid lines, giving the impression that the playing area is surrounded by windows. But not windows: these are geometrically imposing, harsh and rigid. The characters appear trapped in sharp boxes. There is no sense of cohesion or fluidity—or room for growth.
That individual isolation seems to be the loose thread that hints at Cathy and Jamie's ultimate unraveling. It's more opera than musical, more melancholic and tragic than sunshine and saccharine. More real.
The Last Five Years at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Feb. 1. $45-$52; students half-price, except Fri.-Sat. evenings and Sun. matinees.