A night off. No kids, no responsibilities. Just a husband and wife, Chinese takeout, and a bottle of wine.
This rare “just the two of us” evening proves to be a dark night of the soul in Michael Weller’s taut Fifty Words, a piercing examination of how in the hell any relationship survives, much less endures. Director Donald Hicken brings out both the vitriol and vulnerability of Jan and Adam, played with bristling force by Megan Anderson and Clinton Brandhagen.
Set in a tastefully rehabbed Brooklyn brownstone in the home’s heartbeat—the kitchen—50 Words welcomes us into the cozy nest and messy inner lives of Jan and Adam, who find themselves without a child to worry about for the first time in nine years. With son Greg at his first sleepover, the couple has nothing to distract them from their marriage. Quickly, you discern their rhythm—she’s critical and tense, he’s cajoling and expansive. She’s a chronic worrier and workhorse. He travels a lot and blows things off.
The evening starts out with Adam as the seducer—plying her with wine and back rubs, talking about sex and trying to maneuver her into the bedroom. For awhile, it works—Jan lets down her guard and relaxes into remembering their randy first date and the early days of their relationship. Yet, old habits die hard and Jan can’t stop herself from cutting him off at the knees and Adam falls easily into the role of the wounded victim and placater.
Instead of making love, Jan sits down to work and loses track of time. This slight opens up old wounds and produces fresh gashes into the tired flesh of their relationship. As the night wears on, Jan and Adam open themselves up so wide you wonder if they’ve gone too far. The revelations and recriminations fly fiercely and hit the intended targets with such awful precision you find yourself praying for morning—a new day, the possibility of beginning to forget, perhaps even forgive.
Miss Anderson and Mr. Brandhagen attack the roles as if each word they utter would be their last. The opposites attract dynamic of their relation can be seen from the start—she’s slim and tightly muscled and clad in tailored pants with sharp creases and high heels; he’s shaggier, a jeans and barefeet kind of guy. Yet, the beauty of their performances lies in how adroitly they betray their types. For such a cool customer, Jan hides a piercing vulnerability and scorn of her abilities and talents. She needs Adam to assuage her profound disappointment in herself—and that knowledge just about kills her.
As for Adam, beneath that puppylike exterior lies a man with seemingly fathomless depths of anger, someone who has seamlessly constructed a double life. It is no accident that Adam is an architect. While seeming to absorb all of Jan’s barbs and insecurities, it turns out that his soft exterior conceals a tough inner core, a secret self he crafted out of feeling neglected and unappreciated.
The humor and the hurt in Fifty Words ricochet your emotions between giddiness and despair. It’s a thrilling 90 minutes, surprisingly not a downer even when Adam proclaims near the end “That’s marriage—two people disappointed in each other.” The play proves that marriage and relationships are far more than that and that the splendor of love and pain cannot fully be expressed in words—whether 50 or 50,000.