October 15, 2008

"Fifty Words" Doesn't Say Enough

Have you noticed how curtains rarely rise anymore? Instead you walk into a theater and the set is right there staring at you. And, depending on how early you arrive and how distracted you are once you get there, you can stare back at it and, often, you can tell a lot about a show by what you see even before the play begins.

I got to the Lucille Lortel Theatre early and I went alone. So I had plenty of time to study the set for the MCC Theater’s production of Fifty Words, the new Michael Weller play that opened earlier this month. Neil Patel’s set design was so smart and so specific—a Peggy Piacenza dance poster on an exposed brick wall, the Crayola-colored Fiestaware on the kitchen shelves—that I started smiling because I could guess exactly what kind of people lived there. And because I figured if the furnishings were that good, I was in for a terrific evening.

I got the first part right. The second less so. The characters who live in the world Patel designed are an upper-middle class Brooklyn couple (he’s an architect, she’s a former dancer turned internet entrepreneur) played by Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel. Their nine-year-old son is off on his first sleepover, leaving his parents to their first night alone in nearly a decade. What ensues is another one of those long day’s journeys into a marital nightmare that calls to mind O’Neill and Albee. Only nowhere near as good.

Marital discord is a gift that keeps on giving to writers, from The Oresteia of Aeschylus to the “Desperate Housewives” created by Marc Cherry, and the tensions between contemporary dual-income spouses opens up a ripe new area for drama to explore. It would be hard to find two better actors to conduct the investigation than Butz and Marvel (click here to read a funny Q&A she did with Playbill). They are simultaneously cerebral and physical performers, fully committed to both approaches. So you get the whole package when you watch them. In fact, they go so full out that the play’s opening was delayed a few days because both actors got injured in their onstage brawling during the preview period. Director Austin Pendleton is also an accomplished actor and playwright and knows how to tell a stage story.

It’s the particulars of this story that bothered me. I just didn’t believe this couple. Or the night they shared. Maybe that’s because this is such a guy’s play. The husband’s fondest memory of his wife is about how she gave him a blow job in a cab the first night they met. His reminiscences about it are supposed to put her in the mood for another “romantic” evening. Huh?

The contrivances Weller uses to keep the plot moving along are just as clunky. Would the mother of the boy their son is visiting really call after midnight just to confirm what time she should bring the boy home? Would a wife who purports to still be in love with her husband really spend all her time working on her computer while he’s waiting in bed for her to make love on the night before he’s going away on a long business trip?

It’s true that I’m blessed with a happy marriage but it took me a long time to find my husband K and I know how couples can eviscerate one another (been there; been done in by that) but I’ve seen more realistic portrayals of a bad marriage on the Lifetime Channel. If a playwright is going to take this subject on, then he ought to have something fresh to say about it. "There should be 50 words” for love, “like Eskimos have for snow," the wife says at one point. That may explain the show’s title but in theater it's not how many words you use, it's how well you use them that counts.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

B&M, So sorry to hear this show didn't work as it was one I had thought about seeing.

On another note, tag, you're it.

Interested Party said...

Walking into a theater and seeing the set is like standing outside a deli until it opens. The lack of a curtain dissipates all sense of anticipation and, dare I say it, drama. I just saw Bedroom Farce -- something seemed to be lacking. Maybe it was the curtain.