The best play of the Contemporary American Theater Festival 2009 is about your marriage – and mine, and every marriage, young or old, gay or straight, where the partners have, for better or worse, given their souls to each other for safekeeping. T.S. Elliot dreamed of a day “When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table” but playwright Michael Weller spreads the marriage of Adam (Anthony Crane) and Jan (Joey Parsons) out before us without anesthetic, kicking and screaming. Weller’s deconstruction of the unraveling relationship, only partially cushioned by wit, is an act of profound perceptiveness fully abetted by the extraordinary performances of the two actors.
For millennia, marriage was an institution governed by an inflexible set of rules, in which the rights and duties were clear and inviolate, and everyone’s expectations were met except in the most tragic circumstances. It is not that way now. Thus the play opens with Adam wheedling for sex, using every device he can imagine. He has prepared the food (by sending out for Chinese); he pops a bottle of champagne, he compliments her taste in flatware, he promises to clean the dishes afterward. And Jan…Jan knows what he’s doing, and bemusedly rejects his flattery. She has her own agenda: her new data-management business, and their son’s homework assignment (he’s in Staten Island on a sleepover). This is what their modern marriage has become: a struggle for power.
They use their words to nuzzle and slap. They reminisce about an amorous encounter in a taxicab; Adam amuses Jan by imitating her mother; Jan worries aloud about her new business; they argue about their son, who’s having problems in school; Adam worries that Jan’s new business has caused them to drift apart; Jan accuses Adam of being childish. It gets worse, but I won’t tell you how. You’ll have to see the show yourself.
At one point you may be reminded of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But Weller’s dialogue, while pointed and witty, does not have the soul-scouring venom of Albee’s. What’s more, George and Martha are alcoholics sunk into the bath of their own failure. Adam and Jan are people like us. The dilemmas they face are the same dilemmas that millions of married couples confront. They just confront it, telling long-withheld truths to each other, in a combustible two hours, in front of us.
Fifty Words is a play for grownups to watch and professionals to perform. Thank God, and Director Ed Herendeen, that we have two superb professionals here. Crane beautifully captures Adam’s seductive charm, his little-boy sweetness, his engaging humor – and when the dark moments come, he does not turn Crane into someone else, but has him be exactly the same man. Parsons, utterly convincing inhabiting two roles in Dear Sara Jane, is simply wonderful as Jan, a difficult woman, badly used. Hers are the darker secrets, and as she tells them it is as if she has coughed up her soul, and is left flat and affectless.
Aeschylus said that the first casualty of war is truth, and the same is true of the struggle for power. Adam and Jan, who have lived in a house of lies for nearly twenty years, bathe in truth’s cold water in front of us. It makes for a powerful story, powerfully told.
By Michael Weller
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor