Fifty Words @ Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York

cast list
Elizabeth Marvel
Norbert Leo Butz

directed by
Austin Pendleton
In Michael Weller’s latest play, Fifty Words, a marriage is set to dissolve before an audience’s very eyes.

Jan and Adam are alone in their own home together for the first time in nine years thanks to their son’s attendance at a sleepover party on the eve of one of Adam’s business trips. Things may appear outwardly tranquil, but wait until the night progresses. If this sounds like predictable subject matter, the two-person cast – Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz – dispels any sense of cliche, turning in deeply nuanced performances that elevate the play to unusually titillating heights.

It’s a testament to the breadth of Weller’s talent that this play is running in the West Village while his other, vastly different play, Beast, is at New York Theatre Workshop in the East. Weller shows here that he can write not only frenzied, expansive plays like Beast, an incisive look at soldiers returning from the Iraq War, but also equally cutting examinations of home life and interpersonal struggles.

Besides for the performances of Butz and Marvel, the characters of Jan and Adam seem so vivid because we’re allowed to observe them within the claustrophobic confines of their living space (the homey set design is by Neil Patel). We soon learn that Jan, a former dancer, is now a database manger trying to make her way in a competitive environment where she feels there aren’t enough hours in the day. Adam is a partner in an architectural firm, a position he’s held for years but which is on increasingly shaky ground. From the start, the mood is uneasy. Adam whips out the champagne to celebrate their time alone together, and immediately Jan remarks, “I get nervous when you celebrate randomly.” Once a happy conversation about the beginning of their relationship has passed, the mood quickly sours, giving way to flat-out combat. It’s like watching a pair of hamsters sparring over who gets a turn at the wheel – grappling over who controls the power. The sparks that fly between Marvel and Butz are electric.

Both characters have changed since their younger days. Elizabeth Marvel infuses Jan with a sense of overworked, undersexed beauty. She’s still attractive (“Doormen still give [her] the eye,” as she puts it), and she still exhibits some of the habits of a dancer, splaying out on the floor to stretch in order to relieve tension. But as her performance progresses, her open, languid leg extensions invert as she crumples in on herself, her arms crossed and her brow knitted as she goes on the offensive against Adam’s erratic behavior.

Norbert Leo Butz’s performance is just as effective for different reasons. Butz plays his character as both childish and charming. Moments of reason and sanity give way to outbursts, punctuated by frequent bangs of his fist on the kitchen counter. It’s a louche, loud performance from an actor mostly known for his roles in musicals like Wicked and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, one that finds Butz worthy of more dramatic roles in the future.

The pacing of the production here is so strong thanks to the fine direction of Austin Pendleton, who masterfully orchestrates the cadences of the action. Just as we think we’ve reached a predictable conclusion, we’re thrown for another loop. This is perhaps the most satisfying quality of the production as a whole. To maintain an audience’s investment in a play with only two characters over the course of ninety minutes is no easy task. Here, however, the battle of wills between the two characters feels like a game of hot potato made even more fun by the addition of a lit stick of dynamite.

By the end of the play, both characters in tears, Marvel’s makeup streaming down her face in jet black streaks, it’s clear that love between these characters isn’t easy. Jan fittingly despairs that the word “love” is used to describe such a multitude of emotions, none of which seems to pin down exactly what she’s feeling. “There ought to be fifty words for it, like Eskimos have for snow,” she opines.

Weller posits no easy answers for these two lost souls who’ve known each other for so long, having experienced the heights and depths of marriage together. “I hate how well you know me,” Jan tells Adam, summing up perfectly the ambiguity she feels toward him. This feeling is the most vivid throughout the play, that, somewhere between “love as it is” and “love as it should be” is a muddle in the middle that can never be fully comprehended. Fifty Words attempts to shed light on this disparity, and Michael Weller should be proud of the relative depths of his marital spelunking.

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