Although Schmuel already works hard in his tailor shop in Klimovich, his wall clock pushes him to sew further into the night, making his dream dress “to fire / The mad desire / Of girls from here to Minsk.” As Schmuel sews, the clock’s hands magically turn backwards, creating a fountain of youth in which Shalom Aleichem and Bernard Malamud might happily bathe.
Josh Davis (Jamie) sings the Schmuel tale in an appropriate mama-lashon yiddishe accent to his wife Betsy Morgan (Cathy) on the second Christmas after their marriage. That Jamie sings a shtetl bubbameiseh to Cathy on Christmas ought not to surprise the audience, as Jamie, well before unleashing Schmuel, had already removed his Santa cap to reveal a white kippa and sung “Shiksa Goddess” to his Catholic wife. He concludes the Schmuel tale, singing “If Schmuel had been a cute Goyisha maid, he’d’ve looked a lot like you.”
The set design recreates New York City (where else?), the interfaith couple’s tramping ground, with a taxi stand and knockoffs of Massimo Vignelli’s subway signs. Broadway, Times Square and Houston Street complete the set, an organized mess like the “Rent” set. But this performance of “The Last Five Years” definitely had more Astor Place pumping through its veins than Broadway; the singing and the acting had far too much avant-garde energy to be Midtown.
“The Last Five Years” is about the trials and eventual dissolution of a five-year marriage in which Jamie and Cathy move from starry-eyed, idealistic lovers to almost strangers. Over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Jason Robert Brown, the writer and composer, said the play explores the experience of being young in New York, but it also navigates miscommunication and gaps between narratives, “even though we have all these devices around that should help us communicate.”
But there is a catch. Jamie tells the story in chronological order, while Cathy tells hers in reverse. If the proof is to be in the pudding, “The Last Five Years” gives its audience the proof and the pudding simultaneously, making a play about confusion quite confusing in form, especially with discontinuous musical soliloquies that center on disharmony. Brown’s fascination with musicals derives from “the emotional availability of someone who is in the midst of a song,” which is less present in normal dialogue.
Brown’s decision to create a cacophonic plot ensures that at any given point in the hour-and-a-half performance one character is struck head over heels with Cupid’s arrows, while the other seems to have read too much Nietzsche or Schopenhauer. With the exception of Jamie’s and Cathy’s wedding mid-way through the play, the couple never interacts, let alone resides in the same time frame.
Initially, the audience hears the beginning and the end of the story, and like the reader who reads the first and last pages of a novel and then proceeds to the middle, viewers know what will happen to Jamie as time goes on and Cathy as time goes back.
The result is humorous but sad. Jamie sells his book, Swimming, and makes it big in the publishing world, signing books, giving readings, and receiving a favorable review by Updike in the New Yorker; while Cathy fails to land audition after audition, and becomes the stay-at-home wife living in her husband’s shadow that she swore she would never become.
Jamie, conversely, finds ways to satisfy his womanizing desires, singing, “I found a woman I love, / And I found an agent who loves me.” It would be hasty to tag Jamie a Don Giovanni—viewers only see one instance of adultery—but he certainly seems to have lost his glamorous affection for the Shiksa Goddess as his luck increases. His reading from Swimming centers on a male narrator trying to keep pace with the mermaid in the next swimming lane, whose face he cannot place initially. He finally recognizes her when she takes off her goggles, but cannot hear her as she screams, “You don’t have to let me win.”
The screaming character whose spouse cannot hear (or does not want to hear) typifies both parties in “The Last Five Years,” and Brown admitted that he was “very careful not to make either of the characters exclusively at fault.” The failed marriage derives from “so many hindrances and religious and cultural differences” from both parties.
“I am positing in the show that intermarriage has a lot to do with the failed marriage,” Brown said. He sees the play as “very reflective of an average assimilated Jew’s experience, to a certain extent,” but he is quick to remind that he is not a fatalist, and certainly does not think intermarriage causes divorce. Over drinks post-show, both actors—Davis and Morgan—said intermarriage played little role in the characters’ failed relationship. The question of faith “wouldn’t have come up until they had kids,” they said.
But although both Morgan and Davis are Jewish, neither felt “The Last Five Years” drew out their Jewish identities. Brown admitted “I could not have written Jamie if I weren’t a Jew,” and via email, he described his Jewish upbringing as “fairly laid-back conservative... we rooted out treyf, but we didn’t recite prayers every Friday night.” All in all, it was “more or less the same kind of religious observance that every other Jewish kid in my neighborhood had.”
That regularity is really the root of “The Last Five Years.” Brown said he tried to create an effect “viewers would understand in their hearts as universal.” Davis said that he could identify the Jews in the audience, because they all laughed at the line from Shiksa Goddess, “I’m breaking my mother’s heart. / The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking.” Judging from the audience laughter I heard, the audience found the play quite familiar.
Jason Robert Brown will perform with his trio at Everyman Theatre on October 16 and 17. His newly released solo album is called “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes.” For more information, visit everymantheatre.org or call 410-752-2208.
This story was published on October 4, 2005.