By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Nietzsche's dictum, great for individuals seeking motivation, bad for couples incapable of masking mutual resentment. Case in point: Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, now receiving a soulful production by 11th Hour Theatre Company at University of the Arts' Caplan Center for the Performing Arts.
Brown's book chronologically separates the sung-through storylines of twentysomethings Jamie (Michael Philip O'Brien) and Cathy (Cara Noel Antosca); her narrative begins at the end of their failed five-year marriage and works backward, while he retells the story from the start. It's a clever, if at times confusing, device in which each character tells one side of the story, only interacting with the other in the number that signifies their engagement and wedding.
As he earns fame as a novelist, she struggles to gain parts in regional theater. Exasperation exhausts and indignation inflames, and each song begins with the promise of reconciliation before devolving into one more source of conflict.
O'Brien and Antosca deliver careful characterizations, but because of the contrast between her diminuitive frame and O'Brien's linebacker physique she appears cloying and nagging, and garners little sympathy, while his robust charisma makes it easy to root for his success. Both, however, offer superb renditions of Brown's varied, engagingly modulated score, which flows like a receding and swelling current of emotional depth under Tabitha Allen's musical direction.
Director Megan Nicole O'Brien emphasizes the lyrics' wistful, melancholy aspects, overlaying a "what could have been" feel to the stories while sacrificing some of the script's humor, or cheapening it with gaudy choreography.
But maybe that's the point. Brown based The Last Five Years on his own failed first marriage, and O'Brien presents the 85-minute musical as an evening-length lament, a reflecting pool of shared interpersonal failure.
Any smiles stem from sadness, a bliss born of basking in memory, if only we can remain strong enough to let Cathy's nostalgia remind us that yes, there was a pain once worth enduring.