Theater Review: “The Last Five Years” — Time-Tripping Through Scenes From a Marriage
By Erik Nikander
Leigh Barrett’s staging reflects a clear-eyed understanding of the power of the material’s simplicity, which makes The Last Five Years an exceptional musical experience: thought-provoking as well as captivating.
The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Leigh Barrett. Musical direction by Dan Rodriguez. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company at 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, through December 12.
There’s an almost startling simplicity to Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. At first glance, the musical’s core concept — chronicling the trials and tribulations of a relationship from two perspectives, backwards as well as forwards — sounds a little disorienting. In practice, though, everything clicks. Not only does this story remain emotionally resonant, but the storytelling method encourages the audience to rethink old ideas from fresh new angles. Brown draws on his talent for clear songwriting to paint a minimalistic portrait of a relationship’s rise and fall, compressing half a decade into a series of moments that are straightforward yet rich with detail.
From the very beginning of The Last Five Years, we know that the marriage of up-and-coming writer Jamie (Jared Triolo) and struggling actress Cathy (Kira Troilo) will end in heartbreak. Cathy’s opening song, “Still Hurting,” is a lament to all that’s gone wrong — the secrets Jamie kept, his fading interest in her, and the pain she’s left to grapple with now that the marriage is over. Then we jump back five years, to Jamie’s “Shiksa Goddess,” in which he gushes with boundless enthusiasm over his brand-new relationship with Cathy. So, what brought down this relationship? We follow Cathy’s story backwards in time as Jamie’s moves forward beside it. The plots never intersect –except for one brief, golden moment.
Though the show is technically a two-hander, director Leigh Barrett stages it as something more akin to two one-person shows running in tandem. Even when a tune is directed to the other partner, the vast majority of Brown’s songs are sung alone onstage. This choice highlights the subjectivity of personal experience, reminding us that these characters exist as unique individuals, though they’re often defined by their relationship. Cathy and Jamie each have their own internal struggles that the other partner can’t alleviate. Cathy’s floundering stage career, for instance, pits her in a constant struggle against an industry that often treats women as objects of youth and beauty instead of people with thoughts and feelings. Jamie’s skyrocketing literary fame makes it difficult for him to relate to her struggles; it also fills his life with mountains of social obligations — not to mention temptation in the form of other women.
As you might have guessed by their surnames, the show’s two leads also happen to be married to each other in real life. Even though they rarely interact one-on-one over the course of the piece, the relationship between the actors adds an additional layer of authenticity and emotional depth to Brown’s script. It’s hard not to admire their willingness to dig deep into a play that deals so frankly with a crumbling marriage. Right from the start, Jared Troilo’s Jamie is a charmer, a charismatic young man whose dreams of literary fame are miraculously coming true. His big break arrives at age 23. This early success turns out to be both a blessing and a curse — he has the writing talent to stay in the big leagues, but lacks the necessary emotional maturity to balance career and marriage. Troilo delivers a layered portrait of Jamie, making his winning smiles and moments of weakness equally compelling.
Kira Troilo’s Cathy is the more insecure and reflective partner, worrying about her place in the theater world and in Jamie’s life. Brown, much like Jamie, had his big break come very early in his career. Through Cathy, he critiques an industry from the perspective of someone who wasn’t so lucky. She suffers through endless auditions in front of disinterested men judging her by her looks rather than her creative talents. When Cathy moves to Ohio, where she finally finds work onstage, she’s consigned to outsider status by her New York City friends. Troilo’s sympathetic depiction of Cathy’s insecurity and fraying nerves is vivid and affecting, underlying the psychological imbalances in her life and marriage. That said, her youthful optimism at the very end of the show comes off as just a tad enervated. Even before things have gone wrong, Cathy’s hope is given a prescient twinge of melancholy.
A crucial element to the success of The Last Five Years is the band, a six-person ensemble led with gusto by musical director Dan Rodriguez. The show is almost completely sung through, so Rodriguez and company have to keep the music going smoothly for the entire 90-minute runtime — they don’t miss a beat. Not only is their playing excellent, it’s varied as well; Brown’s score samples a range of musical traditions, including blues, classical, and Klezmer. The band takes all this variety in stride. These disparate genres are unified by Jenna McFarland-Lord’s striking scenic work. Her set is centered around a rotating platform that’s decorated with a strange, crisscrossing clock motif, a feature that allows for dynamic movement while symbolizing the play’s off-kilter timelines. Overlapping rings hang from the ceiling at varying degrees of distance, close and far — perhaps these, like the songs themselves, represent distinctive snippets of Jamie and Cathy’s life together.
The Last Five Years evokes a sense of grandeur in small moments, expressing the joys and tragedies of love through snapshots in time. It may not go into the nitty-gritty details of the relationship the way a straightforward drama might, but its unusual storytelling device and well-written songs paint a thorough portrait of a marriage — and of lives in the arts. The Lyric Stage Company’s production is not elaborate or grandiose in scale, but Barrett’s staging reflects a clear-eyed understanding of the power of the material’s simplicity, which makes The Last Five Years an exceptional musical experience: thought-provoking as well as captivating.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.