Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years does a magic trick with time. The two-character musical, now running at Theater LaB Houston, approaches the story of one couple's rather boring breakup from two perspectives. Cathy begins the tale in the present -- that is, at the relationship's painful end -- and then moves back in time toward its giggly first dates. Jamie begins at the beginning, whooping and spinning at his good luck. An hour and a half later, he's trudging painfully toward the sour end.
But even if Cathy's opening number, "Still Hurting," hadn't let us know the relationship would die, any fool could see the marriage was doomed from the start. In Jamie's first number, "Shiksa Goddess," we learn that one of Cathy's most alluring qualities is that she's not a nice Jewish girl, the sort his mother wants him to marry. How's that for healthy partnering? And when Cathy informs us in "I'm Part of That" that Jamie is beguiling because his writing career is going gangbusters while her acting life heads down the tubes, we know that this is a marriage built on the gooey terrain of Dr. Phil-style neurosis. She wants someone to give her life meaning; he wants a trophy. If these two losers are ever going to find some happiness, divorce is not only inevitable, it's downright necessary.
Because there's no apparent love between this couple in the first place, it's hard to care about their breakup, which is one of the biggest difficulties with The Last Five Years. The backward/forward time-warp structure, an interesting concept, only underscores the isolation that Jamie (Keith Caldwell) and Cathy (Joanne Bonasso) feel as they try to make a marriage out of their mistake. They sing their stories as musical monologues, never interacting with each other throughout the intermissionless show. The fact that we never see the characters connecting makes it even harder to care whether this union survives. There's no fire between them, so it really does seem better that they go their separate ways. In fact, the only trouble with this divorce is that it should've happened years earlier.
The Last Five Years
Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo
Through February 14; 713-868-7516. $23
Director Ed Muth's production at Theater LaB doesn't breathe much fire into Brown's sterile story. Both performers seem painfully miscast here. Bonasso's wonderfully comic energy doesn't mesh well with the dowdy character of Cathy. The actress is simply too powerful a presence to make the shrinking flower of Cathy feel real. There still are moments in which Bonasso comes blazing to life, but those have nothing to do with the relationship. In "A Summer in Ohio," she sings about the humiliations of summer stock with wild abandon. Even more wonderful is "Climbing Uphill," a number about the horrors of the open call audition in New York City. In these songs, Brown's usually sharp composition (he won a Tony in 1999 for Parade) comes through, with some help from Bonasso's fiery wit. But Brown's writing and Bonasso's performance feel labored during the sadder relationship songs.
Caldwell also seems oddly cast. With his gold nugget- and diamond-studded wedding band and black-and-white-checkered jacket, he simply doesn't look much like a swaggering, twentysomething novelist who ends up spending most of the five years of his marriage taking New York by storm. It's difficult to find any redeeming qualities in the narcissistic character of Jamie. He's a man who spends most of his time in "Jamie-Land," as Cathy says, or in bed with other women. The only way to make this character palpable is to imbue him with the charismatic star qualities that apparently have made him such a man about town. But Caldwell, who is hampered by some awkward staging (including several scenes in which he must mime holding and touching a lover), is much too subtle a performer to make Jamie's larger-than-life personality feel real. The result is that Jamie comes off like an enormous jerk, someone Cathy will do well to rid of.
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The final number, "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You," in which Cathy is deliriously happy at the new relationship's possibilities and Jamie is disgusted at the failed marriage, manages to find the poignant irony that Brown is shooting for throughout the script. But it takes so long to arrive at this moment, it's hard to care about it when we do.